Superjet project ready for takeoff, Airbus chief says

Herald staff and The Associated Press

PARIS — Airbus Industrie’s ambitious project to build the world’s largest passenger plane is ready to be officially launched before the end of the year, the company’s chief executive said in an interview published Friday.

Noel Forgeard told the French daily Le Monde that with 44 firm orders in hand, the company was now ready to ask its shareholders to give the A3XX superjumbo project the green light.

His comments came just days after Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, clinched its biggest order yet for the mammoth plane. Qantas Airlines Ltd., an exclusive client of rival Boeing Co. for more than 40 years, said it had ordered 12 Airbus superjumbos — luxury 555-seat planes which will be equipped with bars, gyms and even casinos.

"From my point of view, we have now fulfilled all the criteria fixed by our shareholders for the A3XX launch," Forgeard was quoted as saying in Le Monde.

Airbus is owned jointly by the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., which holds 80 percent, and Britain’s BAe Systems PLC, with 20 percent.

Forgeard said the project was ready to be launched before the end of the year, but added the decision would be made by the shareholders.

"My mission is complete, even if I am expecting more orders in the short-term," he said, adding that Airbus is in talks with Britain’s Virgin Atlantic Airways and British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa AG and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific.

He said the company needed a quick thumbs-up to be able to receive the first sections of the giant plane in Toulouse by 2003, and to conduct the first flight at the end of 2004.

The first A3XXs will be delivered in 2006, a little later than originally forecast because more work was needed to reduce the noise level to conform with stricter regulations at Heathrow Airport in London.

Originally, Airbus had said it would need to secure around 50 orders before going ahead with the $12 billion project.

But Forgeard told Le Monde that the figure was purely indicative, and said it was "very probable" the target would be reached in the next few days.

"To launch the plane, our priority is to build a portfolio of launch clients who will set off a chain reaction across global air travel. That is now done," he said.

Singapore Airlines has ordered 10 of the superjumbos, as has Air France. Emirates Airlines has ordered seven, and International Lease Finance Corp. has ordered five.

The Qantas deal was a double victory for Airbus. Not only did it give the A3XX project a crucial boost, it was also a blow to the European firm’s main competitor. The A3XX project is a direct challenge to the dominance of Boeing’s 747 jumbo in the long-range, high-capacity market.

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. As evidence, it points to record sales of its family of 777s.

The sale of 115 777s will total more than $18 billion, at list prices this year.

But despite its skepticism, Seattle-based Boeing is still planning a longer version of the 747, the 747X Stretch, which will seat up to 520 passengers.

Qantas also is ordering a half-dozen Longer-Range 747-400s, the first of three planned versions of the 747X family of planes.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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