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Battle-ready superjumbo storms skies

Toulouse (France), April 27 (Reuters): The world's biggest airliner, the European Airbus A380, flew for the first time today in a new challenge to US rival Boeing Co. in the battle for the global aviation market.

The double-decker A380, designed to carry 555 passengers but with room for more than 800, touched down smoothly almost four hours after soaring into sunny skies on its maiden flight above Airbus headquarters near Toulouse, in southern France.

The European Airbus consortium is counting on the A380 to help it keep its edge over Boeing, while the US company says it believes the future lies in smaller long-range airliners.

Thousands of enthusiasts cheered outside the perimeter fence as the plane, carrying just a six-man test crew, landed after completing a series of tests of equipment and in-flight procedures on the world's heaviest commercial airliner.

'You handle (this aircraft) as you handle a bicycle. It's very, very easy to fly,' chief test pilot Jacques Rosay said after fellow pilot Claude Lelaie landed the $285 million plane.

The A380, as long as eight London buses and with enough room on its wings to park 70 cars, heralds a new era in passenger travel, just as the supersonic Concorde jet set new standards by breaking the sound barrier in 1969.

But Airbus faces a tough battle with Boeing and is still short of selling 250 of the A380s, which it says is the break-even point. Some experts say it will have to sell almost three times as many to make a profit.

Boeing said it was pleased the flight test passed successfully and congratulated Airbus. But a spokesman said: 'In terms of the market it is likely to secure, our view remains unchanged and that is that the A380 is a very large aircraft for a very small market.'

'We believe people want to fly directly to their destinations on smaller planes rather than having to change at hubs which builds in delay and frustration,' he said.

Boeing has vowed to end the dominance of Airbus, which has outsold the Chicago-based plane maker in every year since 2001, and the two rivals are locked in a struggle in which each accuses the other of having unfair subsidies.

Boeing has been focusing on a much smaller money-saver in the 787 Dreamliner which is due in 2008, and has won two big deals in the past few days with Air India and Air Canada worth a total of around $13 billion.

A hostess in the cabin of Airbus A380. (AFP)

The A380 will now make up to 2,500 hours of test flights to pave the way for it to enter service in the second half of 2006.

European aerospace group EADS has an 80 per cent stake in Airbus and British defence firm BAE Systems has a 20 per cent stake. It has taken Airbus nearly five years and some 12 billion euros ($15.68 billion) to develop the A380, including 1.45 billion euros of cost overruns.

The A380 ended the four-decade reign of Boeing's 747 jumbo as the biggest airliner to have flown. It looks like a 747 with the upper deck stretched all the way to the tail. The French cabinet burst into applause when President Jacques Chirac announced the A380 had successfully taken off. Chirac hailed its safe return as a 'total success' of the project which had written a new page of aeronautical history.

'It is a magnificent result for European industrial cooperation and an encouragement to pursue this path of building a Europe of innovation and progress,' he said.

His close ally German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder saluted a victory for European industrial policy: 'This shows that when we work hard... we can be the best in the world. Airbus has a combined 154 orders and commitments from 15 customers and Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard said he expected more orders this year, although not in the next few days.

Forgeard, who steps down later this year to become joint CEO of EADS, congratulated the A380 development and test-flight team for a 'fantastic collective effort' and said the plane would enter service in the 'second half of 2006'.

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