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Sunday, March 18, 2007 - Page updated at 02:03 AM

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Airbus set for U.S. debut of world's largest passenger jet

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The world's largest passenger jet will make its West Coast debut at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday

Officials expect tens of thousands of onlookers to line airport fences to see the Airbus A380, an eight-story-high behemoth with a double-decked cabin and a wingspan nearly the length of a football field.

"We're planning for the largest turnout since the Concorde came in 1974," said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for Los Angeles World Airports.

Southern California is experiencing an uplift from the massive jet: More than 100 suppliers in the region contributed to the aircraft's construction, pumping $1.5 billion into the economy since 2003.

Los Angeles fought to host this pivotal moment in U.S. aviation history. Despite having promised to bring the A380 to LA first if improvements were made at LAX, as the airport is known, Airbus announced earlier this year plans to land the jumbo jet in New York instead. LAX officials sent a strongly worded letter to company executives in Toulouse, France, and Airbus relented three weeks ago.

So at 9:30 a.m., one of two inaugural U.S. test flights is scheduled to touch down at LAX from Toulouse, about the same time a second aircraft will land at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport from Frankfurt, Germany.

About 550 of Lufthansa's frequent fliers, reporters and news-crew members will be aboard the New York flight. Several dozen technicians will arrive on the LAX jet, which will carry primarily instrumentation.

What will it mean?

Beyond the short-term buzz generated by the A380's arrival is the question of what mark it will make on aviation history. Airlines say that when they start to fly the jet commercially in the next few years, it will allow them to carry more passengers per trip, lowering costs. The superjumbo jet also could help space-constrained airports by allowing carriers to combine several flights into one.

Even so, the A380 is not expected to transform the industry the way its predecessor, Boeing's 747, did when it arrived in 1970 and helped make flying affordable for the masses. Not enough A380s have been sold to fuel that kind of change, analysts said.

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"It's not going to be a revolution; it's going to be an evolution," said Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

The A380, which is about 30 percent larger than the 747, is considered by many to be an engineering marvel. But it doesn't represent change on the scale its older cousin did. When the 747 came into service in the early 1970s, it was 2 times larger than the airplane it replaced.

The flying giants have some similarities. Skeptics contended there wasn't a market for the 747 either, and the plane didn't sell well in the beginning. Airports said they wouldn't be able to wedge its signature hump into their facilities. To date, Boeing has sold 1,500 747s. Airbus has orders for 156 A380s.

Polishing image

The A380 flights to the United States are a way for Airbus to burnish its image after wiring problems caused a two-year delay in deliveries and led to the resignation of top executives and layoffs of 10,000 workers.

In the United States, Airbus' woes helped Boeing sell more planes. Boeing sold a record number of airplanes last year and surpassed Airbus in orders for the first time since 2000.

Airbus officials say the A380 will benefit Los Angeles economically because seven carriers at LAX have ordered the jet. The airport is expected to serve more A380s than any other U.S. facility because of its status as the country's largest gateway to the Pacific Rim.

"It's almost like the A380 was specifically designed for Los Angeles," said Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America.

The A380 makes half the noise of a 747, produces less emissions and is more fuel efficient, Airbus says. The aircraft will offer airlines a 20 percent savings per seat over a 747-400, McArtor said. What's less clear is how full the flights will need to be to generate those savings and whether airlines will pass them on to consumers.

Los Angeles' airport agency plans to spend $121 million to prepare for the A380. It has written checks for half that amount to improve runway and taxiway intersections and for a $9 million double-bridge gate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, where the plane will park Monday.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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