Fans of the A380 Forecast Blue Skies, but Critics Predict Turbulence

ABOARD THE AIRBUS A380 -- There are no caterwauling babies on this test flight of the world's newest and biggest airliner. Absent, too, are the slumped shoulders and ashen countenance of the typical long-haul passenger, wedged into an aluminum tube for...


From an environmental perspective, the A380's delayed debut comes at an opportune time. With the Bishop of London declaring last summer that flying on holiday was a "symptom of sin" because of carbon emissions, the new airliner might be called the ultimate form of carpooling. It is 20% more fuel-efficient than its largest rival, getting about 80 passenger miles a gallon, or about as much gas per passenger, per mile, as a Ford Taurus with three people on board. Its four Rolls-Royce engines emit about half the noise of the 747.

"The A380 naysayers are making way too much" of the challenges facing the new jet, Hamilton says. "All the problems they have today were raised about the 747, too. I have no doubt there are going to be hiccups here and there, but it'll work out, just like it did nearly 40 years ago."

Says Robert van der Linden, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: "As a passenger, I don't want to go through a hub, and I don't know anyone who does. But people vote with their wallets." In the final analysis, "most passengers don't have any idea what kind of aircraft they're flying on, and they don't care. It's 'get me home, on time, and do it for as little money as possible.'"

For all the promises, uncertainties and unanswered questions about the $319 million A380, it remains a huge gamble for the company behind it, and the proof is playing out on the seat-back videos aboard the plane's inaugural jaunt to the USA.

In a documentary about the making of the airliner, Airbus marketing chief John Leahy goes out on a limb as long as the A380's wingspan.

"This cannot be a failure," Leahy declares. "This isn't 'We almost got there' or 'Not too shabby.' Either this is going to be that flagship of the 21st century, or it's going to be a disaster." By the numbers

$319 million

Price tag of an Airbus A380

1.24 million pounds

Maximum takeoff weight

853 passengers

Maximum capacity

310 miles

Length of wiring throughout the plane, the distance from New York City to Pittsburgh

12%

Lower fuel-burn per seat than the Boeing 747-400

50%

Less noise than the 747-400

Source: Airbus, USA TODAY research

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