World's Biggest Jetliner Makes Soaring SFO Debut

The world's largest passenger jetliner, the Airbus 380, landed at San Francisco International Airport on Thursday.

Eat your heart out, Larry and Sergey. The world's largest passenger jetliner landed at San Francisco International Airport on Thursday -- and this plane, unlike the Google founders, got a warm welcome.

How big is it? The Airbus A380 can fit more than 800 passengers (if they all flew coach), has a wingspan nearly the length of a football field, tires 5 feet tall and a top thatrises 80 feet high. Fully loaded at takeoff, it weighs more than 600 tons, powered by four massive engines.

"It's staggering," said Barbara Kaufman, who heads Gov. Schwarzenegger's San Francisco office.

As is the price tag. Even the Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, whose 767 has been the subject of much criticism, might be put off by the $250 million-plus cost.

SFO should see the first commercial use of the double-decker super jumbo jet by the middle of next year, with one or two planes arriving daily, most likely operated by Singapore Airlines, Airbus officials said.

"Welcome to the future of the airline business," Barry Eccleston, president of Airbus Americas, told a crowd of reporters and airport officials.

Only the U.S. military's C-5 Galaxy transport plane and a Russian military plane are bigger than the A380.

But the A380 has had its share of problems.

When the first commercial flight takes off from Singapore to Sydney, Australia, on Oct. 25, it will be a relief for the troubled European airline maker. The A380 is two years late in delivery because of wiring and communications issues.

One thing SFO airport officials are excited about is that they don't expect to get many neighbors' complaints.

State-of-the-art engines make it the quietest large jet in the air.

"I don't think we'll get complaints," said Linda Crayton, vice president of the San Francisco Airport Commission. "It's a quiet ride."

It's been a big year for SFO. JetBlue and Virgin America started service over the summer, and Southwest Airlines renewed flights after a several-year hiatus.

In the fiscal year ending in June, more than 34 million people flew through San Francisco International, about 15 percent above the post-9/11 low of 30 million in 2003.

Airline industry analysts note while its novelty and size will attract passengers, only the nation's largest airports will be able to accommodate the plane. And only international carriers have placed orders for the jumbo carrier.

United and Northwest, both emerging from bankruptcy in recent years, have been courted by Airbus to consider the plane when they replace their long-haul aircraft. But neither has ordered any yet.

Airbus is touting the giant jetliner as a fuel-saver, both for economic and environmental reasons: The more people you put on a plane, the fewer take-offs and landings.

"There is an axiom in the airline industry. Once the fuel prices go up, the number and frequency of flights go down. To keep capacity, you need a bigger plane," said Jahan Alamzad, president of San Jose-based airline analyst CA Advisors.

But, he added, "The gee-whiz factor usually goes away after six months, and then for the airlines, the economic reality hits very hard. Really, does this airplane make sense or not?"

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