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.

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