Americans Gawk at World's Largest Plane

As the Airbus A-380 finishes its American runway show, it has already demonstrated several things about the biggest passenger plane ever built and its trouble-plagued manufacturer.

The plane is a beauty, but Airbus is fighting an uphill battle to create sales momentum for the $300 million aircraft.

The tour ends Monday at Dulles International Airport in Washington after visiting New York and Chicago in partnership with German airline Lufthansa and after a brief test flight into Los Angeles in conjunction with Australia's Qantas. The overwhelmingly positive reaction in New York to the A-380 -- both in the air and on the ground -- was repeated on its other stops.

As the giant taxied across JFK airport last week, passengers inside could see nearly everyone on the ground stop and gape at the seven-story-tall double decker. Workmen stopped what they were doing; service vehicles and a police car trailed the plane, which has a wingspan of more than 261 feet, almost as long as a football field. All the attention given the A-380 over the last three years did not prepare them for the stunning sight of the real thing.

On board, reporters, industry analysts and Lufthansa customers marveled at the cruise-ship like wide staircase from one deck to another, and the immediate impression of spaciousness. While this plane carried 35 percent more passengers than a 747-400 it has almost 50 percent more floor space.

The A-380 flown to the United States from Germany twice during its 12 day turn on the American stage is an Airbus demo model. It is configured with 519 seats. On the smaller upper deck there are 64 business class seats and 136 economy class seats. On the bigger lower deck there are 12 spacious first class seats and 302 economy seats.

But this plane is akin to a model home. Airbus has decked it out in one set of furnishings, but the buyers will configure it in their own way. For example, Lufthansa plans to fit each of its 15 A-380's, the airline's new flagship, with 550 seats in three different classes. Singapore Airlines, which will be the first to fly the plane, is expected to put only 490 seats on board. Dubai's Emirates Airline, the plane's biggest customer with orders for 43, will configure its planes in three different ways. No airline has plans to come anywhere close to the A-380's maximum capacity of 853.

But most impressive was not the size, it was the noise -- or lack of it.

Because of its wingspan and other design features, the plane lifts off suddenly and almost silently. Inside the cabin, the noise level lived up to Airbus' promise that it would be the quietest plane ever built. That's not to say there isn't noise, but it is substantially less than the Boeing 747-400, for example, and contributes to a greater feeling of comfort. One passenger could converse with another three rows away without shouting.

Despite each of the A-380's four massive engines producing 70,000 pounds of thrust, Airbus says tests show it is half as loud as the 747-400. In a recent test at Los Angeles International Airport, the plane's sound "footprint" was 46 percent less than the 747. And it uses less runway to take off and land.

One thing will take some getting used to: The plane's massive and highly flexible wings "flap" on takeoff. In fact, they can flex upward by 13 feet.

But as impressive as the plane is in flight, its manufacturer still has things to fix.

The two year delay in delivery because of wiring and other engineering problems is well known. In fact there have been two delays and turmoil at Airbus and its parent EADS -- European Air and Defense Systems. In the midst of all of this, the only two U.S. customers -- cargo carriers FedEx and UPS -- cancelled their orders.

Other customers are privately furious with Airbus because they believe the production problems have led to the perception among potential passengers that there is something wrong with the plane itself. With Lufthansa in the lead, they have urged Airbus for months to undertake the kind of public relations offensive it has finally begun. And there was reported reluctance at Airbus to do even this minimal damage control.

A critical issue is sales of the A-380. It cost more than $12 billion to develop, with the delays now adding to those costs. It will take at least 250 sales for Airbus to break even, but net orders now stand at 156, split among 14 airlines.

American John Leahy, the top Airbus marketing executive, spoke optimistically during one of the U.S. flights.

"There will be a big ramp-up in sales in the second half of 2008," he said. "By then, five airlines will be flying the A-380 and potential customers will see what a marvel it is."

Leahy pointed back to history, saying that sales of the 747 were sluggish when it was first introduced in 1970.

"But when other airlines saw," he said, "they had to be competitive with the new jumbo, they bought it."

But what about U.S. passenger carriers, two -- Delta and Northwest -- still in bankruptcy, and others strapped for cash? Leahy sees United and Northwest as potential customers because of their Pacific routes, "and this is a perfect plane for the Pacific."

In all, Leahy says Airbus will eventually sell 1,600 A-380s.

But as a footnote, only New York's JFK and San Francisco International Airport are ready to handle the super jumbo, it's passenger load -- and, of course, the baggage. And there was no real test of loading and off loading that many passengers or that much luggage on the test flights.