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Published: Wednesday, 5/4/2005

A big bus that flies

THE successful maiden flight of the new A380 superjumbo jetliner last week launches a real battle of the titans over two sharply different visions of how airline passengers will travel in the future.

Airbus SAS, the European consortium, invested more than $13 billion and 10 years in developing the A380, now the world's largest passenger plane.

In one configuration, the giant double-decker will carry 555 passengers in three classes with a range of 8,000 miles. In another, it may fly more than 800 passengers in single-class economy accommodations.

The A380 will challenge the aging Boeing 747's long dominance in the jumbo jet market. Airbus claims firm orders for 149 of the superjumbos, with the first deliveries set for 2006, assuming the test-flight program continues on course.

Boeing and Airbus are fierce rivals for global customers. Airbus surpassed Boeing in 2003 to become the world's biggest maker of commercial planes. It envisions the A380 as a flagship product that will dominate long-haul aviation for decades.

That vision centers on "hub" airports, including huge international facilities like London's Heathrow, Frankfurt in Germany, and American airports like JFK, O'Hare, and Los Angeles.

The A380 would haul great masses of passengers to the hub, especially on long-haul routes to China, Asia, and the Middle East. Once at the hub, many would then catch connecting flights to their final destinations.

Boeing is still deciding whether to stop making the 747 or produce an updated version that could compete more directly with the A380. For now, however, the American firm is betting on smaller jetliners, including its new 787 "Dreamliner," which will go into production in 2008.

It is a mid-size plane, with one version carrying 223 passengers in three classes with a range up to 8,500 miles. The 787 would be a quantum leap in aviation technology, with unprecedented fuel efficiency, and Boeing has a healthy 217 orders for the plane.

The 787 is part of Boeing's vision of the future, which foresees a decline in importance of "hub" airports and jumbo variety passenger aircraft. Instead, more cities would have direct international and other long-distance flights, with most passengers arriving at their final destination with one take-off and landing.

Let's hope that Boeing has the clearer crystal ball. Big hub airports often bring stress and frustration for travelers, who worry about missing connecting flights and having checked baggage go missing between one plane and another.

In addition, Airbus' publicity agents may conjure soothing images of spacious seating on the A380, with beds, showers, and even casinos. Penny-pinching airlines, however, will decide the seating configurations.

For economy-class flyers, it could turn the superjumbo into the super-cattle car. Imagine the potential for screaming babies onboard, the waits for 800 travelers to board and disembark, the clamor in boarding areas when a flight is delayed or canceled, and the baggage-handling nightmares.

Nobody knows which vision will win in the end. Both may well coexist, with the two aircraft serving different markets. For economy-class passengers, however, the A380 may prove another example that bigger is not always better.


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