PARIS – Airbus Industrie has received a firm order for six of its yet-to-be-built superjumbos from Britain’s Virgin Atlantic Airways, moving the $12 billion project to build the world’s largest passenger plane one step closer to an official launch.
Airbus said in a statement Friday that Virgin had also taken an option on six of the giant A3XX planes and would use the superjumbos on routes from London to New York and Los Angeles. Virgin Atlantic valued the deal at more than $3.8 billion.
With 50 firm orders for the A3XX on its books, Airbus is expected to officially launch construction of the planes in the next several days.
The European consortium hopes the new 555-seat luxury plane will allow it to clip the wings of rival Boeing Co., whose 747 fleet has traditionally dominated the long-range, high-capacity market.
Airbus officials have described the A3XX as a flying cruise ship. The double-deck jet will have more legroom and can be equipped with bars, gyms and spacious lounges.
Airbus officials have already said that the A3XX project is ready for takeoff, but shareholders must give their approval before an official launch. Airbus shareholders are the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., which holds 80 percent, and Britain’s BAE Systems, with 20 percent.
Airbus officials have said they need 50 firm orders before they can go ahead with building the plane.
“With 50 orders and many more options from quality customers around the world, Airbus is now in a strong position to launch production of the A3XX,” Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard said in a statement.
Five other airlines already have signed up for the A3XX. Germany’s Lufthansa AG and British Airways are also in talks to buy the mammoth aircraft.
The A3XX has intensified the rivalry between Airbus, which was created in 1972, and Boeing, highlighting their conflicting forecasts for air travel in the 21st century.
Airbus says the demand for larger planes is set to grow and forecasts that the number of airliners in service with 400 seats or more will rise to 1,235 over the next two decades. Boeing argues that airlines are more interested in smaller, more efficient planes that have the range to bypass major hubs on their way to secondary cities.
Boeing plans for a stretch version of its 747 jet built in Everett that will seat some 520 people. It has not yet received any orders for the new plane, which it estimates will cost up to $6 billion to develop.
Boeing’s biggest jet at the moment is the 747-400, which can carry some 416 passengers.
As well as Virgin and Qantas, Airbus has secured firm orders for the A3XX from Singapore Airlines, Air France, Emirates Airlines and the International Lease Finance Corp.
The A3XX project is not just a prickly issue between the two plane manufacturers. It is also a hot trade issue between the United States and the European Union.
Officials from both sides will meet next Monday to discuss government financing for the superjumbo project, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Susan Esserman said Thursday.
The United States is worried that European governments will help Airbus finance the project on more favorable terms than those available in private capital markets. Several European governments have tentatively agreed to provide reimbursable financing for about a third of the project.
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