MAIDEN VOYAGE OF MEGA-JETLINER

The largest passenger jet ever built landed at Sydney airport Thursday to the applause of its occupants - some cheering from the plane's dozen private suites.

Australian Tony Elwood passed some of the seven-hour flight from Singapore reclining with his wife, Julie, on a double bed in a suite they had reserved for $50,000. They sipped Dom Perignon after a lunch of marinated lobster.

"I have never been in anything like this in the air before in my life," he said.

A spiral staircase leads to the upper deck, where business-class passengers can turn their seats into beds - and enjoy the bar area.

Airbus bills the plane as the quietest big, long-haul plane in the sky, thanks to new technologies. Passengers said they found the A380 ride surprisingly quiet and generally smooth.

Many also praised the plane's calming interior lighting and its spaciousness, especially in first and business class, which boast large seats and numerous personal amenities reminiscent of a cushy cruise ship or the sleeper cabin on a train.

The Airbus A380, operated by Singapore Airlines, landed on time, carrying 455 energized, camera-carrying passengers - with a sizable media contingent - representing 35 countries. Or, depending on how you look at it, it arrived two years late.

The double-decker leviathan originally was set to fly in late 2006. But production problems raised the manufacturing budget to $20 billion from $12 billion, and triggered a management crisis at Airbus, the European manufacturer. Singapore Airlines, the launch customer, got a hefty rebate thanks to the delay, though the airline still has dropped more than $5 billion for 19 A380s.

The A380 is considered to be the most important new aircraft since Airbus' U.S. archrival Boeing Co. launched the 747 in 1970. As such, interest in the first flight was high among aviation buffs eager to get on board. Indeed, it may have been the most-photographed commercial flight in history, as well as one of the most anticipated, as even airport workers lined up to snap images of the new plane.

Joe Ruffles of London bought his ticket on eBay, a corporate sponsor of the flight, and sheepishly declined to say how much he paid, though he implied the price was high. Airline officials say the proceeds of the online auction, which totaled about $1.3 million, would go to charity. The top bid was $100,380, which bought two spots in first class, or Singapore Suites, as the airline has dubbed the best seats.

"I like commercial aviation," Ruffles said. "I always have. Years ago, I got myself on the first flight of the Boeing 757, when it was flown by the old Eastern Airlines."

Ruffles, who lived in the Bay Area from 1988 to 1999 before decamping to the United Kingdom to work for OSS Software, a company that makes software for telecoms, told himself it was going to be the trip of a lifetime. "I was not going to be denied," he said.

For David Holland of Brisbane, Australia, getting on the Airbus A380's first flight was a no-brainer.

"I love airplanes," Holland said. "I spent $1,800 for a one-way economy-class ticket. Not bad. I spent 12 hours in the Singapore airport waiting for this flight. I didn't go into Singapore city at all. I couldn't be bothered," said Holland, who said he was unemployed and looking for work.

Singapore Airlines expects to fly the huge new plane to San Francisco International Airport when it has additional aircraft, said Chew Choon Seng, the airline's CEO, who was on the first flight. Rival carriers such as Qantas and British Airways also are considering sending the big plane to SFO, though service start dates have not been announced.

Aviation buffs such as David Katko, a Technicolor Network Services systems engineer from Georgia whose parents live in Vacaville, couldn't wait that long. Katko, who says he has loved aircraft since he made model airplanes as a kid, paid $1,975 on eBay to secure a one-way ticket in economy and considered it a fair price. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. There's only one first flight," he said.

Singapore Airlines' Chew said his company expects to deploy the A380 on the SFO-Hong Kong route. The airline expects to keep flying the Boeing 777-300ER on its popular SFO-Seoul-Singapore line, he said.

Chew was bullish on the huge new plane, which he called "a new milestone in the history of aviation. This is going to set the standard for commercial aircraft in the 21st century."

Despite all the superlatives, industry observers say it could years before Airbus turns a profit on the expensive new aircraft, if it ever does. And some pundits say the plane, while very big, needs to be even bigger, to generate additional revenues for Airbus, which has flown the A380 sans paying passengers to major airports, including SFO, for months in an attempt to drum up interest and increase sales.

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A380: A fancy flight

List price: $320 million

-- 425 times the winning bid for Barry Bonds' 756th home run ball

Top bid for two first-class seats: $100,380

-- Price of a Mercedes-Benz SUV

Height: 79 ft., 7 in.

-- Nearly as tall as an eight-story building

Wingspan: 261 ft., 8 in.

-- About 39 feet short of a football field

Typical passenger seating: 525

-- Compared with 416 on a Boeing 747

Maximum range: 8,200 nautical miles

-- Enough to get you from New York to Hong Kong

Maximum fuel capacity: 81,890 gallons

-- The capacity of 9 large tanker trucks

Maximum takeoff weight: 560 tons

-- About the weight of 80 adult male African elephants

Source: Airbus, Chronicle research


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