Commercial Doubts Remain for Airbus A380

Among the hordes of spectators watching the world's largest passenger plane take flight was one holding a banner that read: "Fly Baby, Fly."

And, fly it did. The question now is: Will it sell?

After its first test flight Wednesday, the Airbus A380 (search) touched down with puffs of smoke from its 22 outsize wheels, the screech of rubber on asphalt drowned by cheering from an estimated 30,000 onlookers around Blagnac's airport.

Plane enthusiasts were everywhere in this part of southwestern France. Many camped overnight in a rock festival atmosphere, and whole families applauded the superjumbo's faultless takeoff and landing with passion.

"There is nothing comparable to this in the universe," said Jean-Claude Antoine, 60, a retired plumber, perched on a hill overlooking the airstrip outside Toulouse — the same tarmac where the now-retired supersonic Concorde embarked on its own maiden voyage 36 years ago.

The A380's four-hour sortie past the snowcapped Pyrenees removed any doubt that the behemoth capable of carrying as many as 840 passengers is airworthy. But it did little to convince skeptics, led by U.S. rival Boeing Co. (BA), that the plane will prove profitable.

Flying the plane was as easy as "riding a bicycle," chief test pilot Jacques Rosay said. Engineer Fernando Alonso said the crew enjoyed an "extremely comfortable" flight.

"Now shareholders can sleep better at night," chief flight engineer Gerard Desbois added.

But the hats stayed on in Seattle, home to a sizable part of Boeing's operations. The superjumbo is "a very large airplane for a very small market," Boeing spokesman Jim Condelles said.

"First flights are always very interesting and exciting. It's an engineering accomplishment that Airbus should be very proud of," he said. "We just don't see a market for 1,250 of these airplanes over the next 20 years."

Condelles was referring to Airbus' global market forecast for very large jets. Boeing sees demand for just 400 jets with 450 seats or more. If Airbus is right, it could enjoy a near-monopoly in that market while Boeing scrambles to produce a competitor.

But some industry experts think Airbus — which is almost certain to outsell Boeing for a second straight year in 2005 — is more likely to end up with egg on its face after spending $13 billion over 11 years developing the A380.

"Airbus is being incredibly optimistic," said Frank Werner, an airline management specialist at Fordham University's business school in New York. "I don't think they're going to sell enough planes in a short enough time to make it financially viable."

Airbus has orders for 154 superjumbos and has said it needs 100 more to recover its investment. But the weak dollar — the currency in which passenger planes are sold — and rumors of heavy discounts on the A380's $282 million sticker price have fueled reports that the real break-even may be higher.

There are also fears that sales could suffer from decisions by big airports like Atlanta not to strengthen runways and put in the bigger boarding gates needed to handle the A380. But others — including San Francisco and New York — are preparing for the huge plane, and Werner said he expected holdouts to follow suit when airlines begin flying the superjumbo in mid-2006.

Airbus critics also say its focus on the A380 has led it to neglect the mid-size plane market, where its planned A350 is set to enter service in 2010 — two years after Boeing's 787 "Dreamliner." Airlines have ordered 237 787s so far.

Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard (search) plays down the 787's development lead, saying the battle for the market in smaller planes will be fought over 20 years, not two. On Wednesday, he called the A380's development a "fantastic collective effort."

Shares in European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (search), which owns 80 percent of Airbus, closed 2.4 percent lower Wednesday at $28.48 a share. Britain's BAE Systems PLC (search), which owns the rest, closed down 0.6 percent at $4.81.

Whatever the criticism, the A380 launch was a major advertisement for Airbus' technological prowess and an emblem for its new status as the world's largest aircraft maker.

The jet carried 22 tons of test instruments plus extra ballast to increase its total takeoff weight to 464 tons, or about 75 percent of its maximum authorized takeoff weight for commercial flights — but already a new record for a civil airliner. The crew plans to gradually increase the ballast over a further 2,500 hours of airborne tests.

While the plane has the capability of carrying 840 passengers, airlines are planning seating configurations that will limit loads to about 550 people.

In an impromptu fly-by at Blagnac at the end of the test, the A380 passed over the runway at low speed, flaps extended, before banking confidently around for its final approach.

"It's magnificent," said Jean Begue, who worked as an industrial director on the early stages of the A380 program.