NEW YORK - The latest jetliner to claim the title of world's biggest passenger aircraft completed its inaugural flight to the United States on Monday, flying on football field-length wings and a prayer that airlines will want to shell out $300 million to buy the behemoth double-decker jet.
The four-engine Airbus A380 descended from a sunny sky and touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport at about 12:10 p.m. EDT, to the cheers of onlookers. As the plane made its way toward the terminal, a pilot waved an American flag. Minutes later, a separate A380 arrived in Los Angeles, with just a crew and no passengers.
The first U.S. flights are a chance for plane builder Airbus and German airline Lufthansa AG to show off the jewel of Airbus' offerings to potential American buyers and to the airports they hope to turn into flight bases for the jet.
The 239-foot-long jet can seat as many as 550 passengers, hold 81,890 gallons of fuel, cruise at 560 mph and fly some 8,000 nautical miles.
Despite the plane's impressive statistics, Airbus has yet to sell any of the planes to U.S. carriers. The A380 comes with a pricetag of about $300 million, although that figure varies depending on the airline's order, said John Leahy, chief of operations for Airbus.
Leahy called the A380 the flagship jetliner for the 21st century, much like the Boeing 747 was in the last century. Airbus has about 160 global orders from 15 airlines for the new plane, which has already made tests flights in Europe and to Asia.
Waiting in the wings, however, is Boeing Co., which now has competitors to the A380 in early production.
The U.S. flight marked one of the highest-profile maiden trans-Atlantic voyages since 1969, when the Concorde, the world's first and only commercial supersonic transport, arrived at JFK from London. The European-made Concorde was retired from British and French service in 2005.
Airbus has been beset by management and financial problems, including a two-year delay to the A380 that wiped out more than $6.61 billion in forecast profits. The flight is a chance to prove that the plane will be ready when the first deliveries are made in October.
Airbus is seeking to recoup its losses by cutting 10,000 jobs and spinning off or closing six of its European manufacturing plants. Louis Gallois, co-chief executive of parent company European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., said Airbus has endured "the worst year" in its history.
Lufthansa chief pilot Juergen Raps, who flew the A380 to New York, said that despite the superjumbo jet's size, it was nimble and responsive.
"If I were to compare it to driving, you would think this would be like driving a truck or a bus," he said inside the cockpit. "It's like driving a Ferrari."
The air show began early Monday at Frankfurt International Airport when the plane took off as Lufthansa Flight 8940 for the eight-hour trip to Kennedy. Onboard were nearly 500 people, including pilots, Airbus crew members, 23 Lufthansa cabin crew and several hundred passengers, mostly Airbus and Lufthansa employees along with some reporters.
The flight operated as if it were a commercial one with full dining and entertainment services. A separate inaugural Los Angeles flight originated in Toulouse, France. With only 23 people aboard, an Airbus crew flew the A380 to Los Angeles for airport "compatibility" tests. About a thousand onlookers lined up along fences at that airport to see the plane make its West Coast debut. The facility nearly lost out on the highly anticipated landing after Airbus announced plans to land the jet in New York instead. The company revised its plan to allow for arrival at both locations. France-based Airbus said the plane will perform tests at the California airport, including airfield maneuvers and docking at the terminal gate. The airport, the fifth-busiest worldwide, is expected to be the first U.S. destination for the A380 when it enters commercial service. Paul Haney, deputy executive director for airport and security of Los Angeles World Airports, called the plane a "beautiful landing." "Although it's the largest commercial airline in the sky, it's quiet and fuel efficient. That means less noise and lower emissions," Haney said, speaking by telephone from inside the aircraft. Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said Monday's flight marked the beginning of a new era in meeting the New York City area's transportation needs. He says the A380 will generate millions of dollars in economic activity each year. (AP) On the Net: Airbus: http://www.airbus.com Lufthansa: http://www.lufthansa.com (AP) Associated Press Writers Matt Moore in Frankfurt and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report. AP-CS-03-19-07 1802EDT
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