PARIS – The Airbus A380, the world's largest passenger jet, took to the sky with a full load of passengers for the first time Monday, and the European aircraft maker announced further management changes in the wake of costly delays to the $13 billion jet program.
The 308-ton jet touched down Monday evening after flying a seven-hour round-trip from Toulouse, southern France, with 474 Airbus employees on board, on the first of four test flights scheduled this week to try out the plane's cabin environment and systems.
Airbus says it is on schedule to deliver the first finished A380 to Singapore Airlines Ltd. by the end of the year, despite production bottlenecks that are expected to hold up subsequent deliveries by about six months.
The latest hitches led to the ouster of Airbus CEO Gustav Humbert as well as Noel Forgeard, joint CEO of Airbus parent European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., weeks after they were announced in June.
Monday saw a further management shuffle at Airbus, which named a new head of the A380 program. Mario Heinen, previously in charge of the single-aisle A320 plane family, replaces Charles Champion — who also steps down from his role as chief operating officer, but stays on as an adviser to Christian Streiff, who succeeded Humbert as CEO in July.
Streiff has imposed a temporary hiring freeze at Airbus and is scheduled to report to shareholders by the end of this month on the full extent of the A380 delays, following a detailed audit.
With the A380, Airbus has bet heavily on future demand for very large planes to fly growing numbers of travelers among the world's increasingly congested major airports. In mid-sized, long-range jets — where Boeing Co. sees much more demand — Airbus is about four years behind its U.S.-based rival's next-generation plane, the 787 Dreamliner, tailored to cover more destinations with more frequent, nonstop services.
The A380 can seat 555 people in three classes, but launch customer Singapore Airlines is expected to operate the plane with a configuration similar to the 474-seat layout chosen for the test flights with passengers.
During Monday's sortie over western Europe, about 25 cabin equipment technicians and the remaining volunteers — chosen from 15,000 Airbus staff who entered an internal lottery — put the super jumbo's cabin fittings and features through their paces, testing out the seating, air conditioning, kitchens and in-flight entertainment.
Flight tests with volunteer passengers are not a required step toward the plane's certification but nonetheless help to ensure that "airlines will benefit from a fully mature aircraft on delivery," Airbus said in a statement.
The super jumbo is entering the final stages of its test program, with 1,900 hours of flying time already logged by its team of test pilots. Airbus so far has 159 orders for the plane, which is priced at $316 million.
The A380 faces another hurdle in November, when a working group within the International Civil Aviation Organization is due to report back on the A380's "wake vortices" — air turbulence created by airliners that can be dangerous to other planes flying close behind.
As a precaution because of its size, ICAO has temporarily set a much larger minimum exclusion zone behind an airborne A380 than around Boeing 747 jumbos. If adopted permanently, the rules could hold up airport traffic behind the super jumbo and reduce the plane's efficiency.
Airbus argues that the A380 is no worse for wake turbulence than the largest version of Boeing's 747.
BAE Systems PLC declined to comment Monday on reports that is to decide this week whether to recommend that its shareholders approve the planned sale of the company's 20 percent stake in Airbus.
The British defense group exercised a put-option to sell the stake back to EADS, which owns the remaining 80 percent of Airbus, but an independent assessment commissioned from investment bank Rothschild after negotiations broke down valued the stake $3.52 billion, well below BAE's expectations.
In Paris, EADS shares ended 0.9 percent lower at $29.58.