Is Bloated Airbus Too Fat to Fly?

SINGAPORE, Jan. 23, 2006 — -- As the Airbus A380 flies across the world, spectators have focused on its massive size -- wings wider than a small apartment building, a tail eight stories tall and an interior that can hold 800 people.

A year after the plane made its debut in Toulouse, France, it has completed 500 hours of flight tests.

Yet the A380 is still months away from carrying paying passengers.

Industry analysts said delays came because early models of the plane were too heavy -- so overweight that they exceeded the plane's million-pound original design.

Initial customers for the A380 -- including Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Emirates Airlines -- have been paid compensation because the overweight plane could not be delivered on time.

The extra weight also meant the airlines could not fly the plane as far as specified, and the cost -- measured in terms of super-expensive jet fuel -- would be much higher.

"You've got to get it right," said Chris Partridge, an analyst. "You get it to the customers as promised. And if you fail in doing that, then people will vote against you with their feet and their checkbooks. And they will buy elsewhere."

The promise, of course, is that the super-jumbo A380 will provide extra legroom and wider seats. But will it happen?

The plan for the A380, which can accommodate 843 passengers, is to carry far fewer, according to Singapore Airlines and other carriers.

Singapore plans to carry 500 passengers aboard the A380. In a planned three-class configuration, legroom could average 34 inches.

But Airbus is in a dogfight with Boeing, one that will continue for years. Airbus may have outsold Boeing again last year, but the U.S. company's fortunes suddenly look very bright: Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is the hottest-selling plane in the world, meaning Airbus cannot afford any more turbulence.