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Airbus unveils a giant of the skies

'Superjumbo' jet raises the stakes in Boeing rivalry

TOULOUSE, France -- Airbus put its stamp on aviation history yesterday, unveiling the world's largest commercial jet and raising the stakes in its 35-year rivalry with Boeing Co.

The double-decker A380 "superjumbo," capable of flying as many as 800 passengers, gives the European plane maker a new flagship and completes its range of jets at a time when Boeing is losing market share and reducing production.

French President Jacques Chirac and other European leaders struck a triumphal note at the ceremony.

"It's a symbol of economic strength, technological innovation, the dedication of the workforce that built it, and above all a confidence that we can compete and win in the global market," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

The A380, which was partially funded by European governments, amounts to a huge bet that carriers need ever-bigger planes to process a growing numbers of passengers through the busiest hub airports. Airbus is investing $13 billion to develop the plane, which has a list price of $280 million and is scheduled for its first commercial flight in 2006.

If Airbus is right, the A380 could consign the once-dominant Boeing 747 jumbo jet to history and leave Airbus with a monopoly in a lucrative and fast-growing market.

Airbus already has 149 orders for the A380, which has a 262-foot wingspan and a tail as tall as a seven-story building. It says it needs 100 more to break even, and a further 500 to deliver on a pledge of a 20 percent return on investment.

In a three-class cabin layout, the A380 will carry 555 passengers -- 33 percent more than the 747. On a full tank, it will carry passengers 5 percent farther than Boeing's longest-range jumbo, Airbus claims, at a per-passenger cost up to one-fifth below its rival's.

Airlines, which have closely guarded their A380 cabin designs, will decide how to use the extra space. Low-cost carriers could operate a single economy-class layout accommodating as many as 800 passengers. In contrast, Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson said his airline, which has ordered six A380s, will offer private double beds for first-class passengers.

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