Despite its troubles, the double-decker Airbus A380 is enjoying its moment in the aviation world’s spotlight.
 

Even so, the giant aircraft still has some skeptics who doubt it will ever really take off especially in “the Blue skies of United.”
 

Yet, there are the so-very-rich who are salivating to go one-up on the occupant of Air Force One at least as far as traveling in the world’s “friendly skies” goes.
 

The largest passenger plane in the world begins its United States tour this week. It arrived at Kennedy International Airport today, touching down gently before a pilot opened a cockpit window to wave an American flag to a crowd of reporters and photographers, including those aboard three helicopters hovering nearby.
 
On Wednesday, the plane will take a celebratory “flight to nowhere” and circle over Manhattan. It will also stop at Dulles in Washington and O’Hare in Chicago, while another A380 flew into Los Angeles International Airport this morning.
 

The plane can clearly generate excitement and buzz in the United States.
 
“When you see it fly, even hardened airplane hands stop and look,” said Edmund S. Greenslet, publisher of the Airline Monitor, a trade publication. “It will be noticed. It is dramatic. To see it is to be impressed at its sheer magnitude.”
 

But turning buzz into actual sales in the United States is another matter. So far, no American carrier has bought the plane and many experts anticipate that none will anytime soon.
 
The financial problems of some carriers prohibit them from affording the $300 million craft.
 

 But, even more, American carriers say they have no need for a plane so big — preferring instead smaller planes that can carry 200 to 300 passengers for more frequent nonstop service between more cities.
 

American Airlines, for example, has not purchased any A380s. Tim Wagner, a spokesman, said that American was instead using the Boeing777, which carries 250 to 350 passengers, on such long-haul flights as Chicago to New Delhi or Dallas to Tokyo. If demand on these routes increases, American would rather offer more flights than use bigger planes, he added.
 

Even Airbus concedes that its prospects are dim in the American market.
“In the near term, we are not expecting any sales to U.S. carriers,” Clay McConnell, an Airbus spokesman, said. “It is not saying that someday we won’t sell to the North American market. It’s just not in the near term.”
 

That outlook differs sharply from Airbus’s optimism in the late 1990s, when it predicted that at least 10 North American carriers would buy 281 superjumbos.
Airbus, in its global market forecast at the time, even went so far as to proclaim, “The 747 is now too small for many routes.”
 

In the air freighter market, the giants of the United States air cargo industry — Federal Express and United Parcel Service along with a major domestic cargo-leasing company — have canceled nearly $6 billion in orders for a cargo version of the A380, a move that caused some freighter orders to migrate to Boeing.
Airbus has not helped itself — problems with the plane have delayed production.
 

There are more than 300 miles of wires in the A380, and problems installing them have forced Airbus to announce two delays in its delivery schedule. The delivery problems have cost Airbus $3.3 billion so far, and led to the layoffs of thousands of employees as well as the ouster of the chief executive.
 
By contrast, Boeing has forecast a global demand for only 325 super jumbo jets. Rather than design an entirely new plane, Boeing came up with a stretch version of the three-decades-old 747 and used it to poach orders from A380 customers who got tired of waiting. Most recently, for instance, Lufthansa, one of Airbus’s core customers, put in an order for 20 stretch 747s.
 

Come this October, Airbus expects to deliver the first passenger A380. Airbus has 156 A380 orders from 14 different carriers, with the biggest orders coming from Emirates, Singapore, Lufthansa and Qantas airlines. Some plan to take advantage of its size to offer more first-class amenities; others plan to pack it with as many budget travelers as possible.
 

While most carriers say they will put 550 or so passengers in the A380, the craft is certified to carry up to 853 — about twice the number carried in the biggest version of the Boeing 747.
 

Even though American carriers are not buying the craft, the A380 will be flying in American skies. International carriers are planning to use the plane for flights in and out of Kennedy, O’Hare, Dulles, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Eventually, Miami, Orlando, Dallas and Denver may also see A380s.
 
For airports, the sheer size of the plane represents both a challenge and a solution. Its wingspan is almost as long as a football field, and it is eight stories tall, meaning airports have had to come up with special double-deck gates so that passengers can enter the plane on two different levels.
 

Because airports are concerned about congestion both in the air and on the ground, anything that increases the number of passengers without increasing the number of flights is welcome.
 
“It’s not desirable to have more flights, but it is desirable to have more people,” said William DeCota, director of aviation for the Port Authority for New York and New Jersey, which operates airports in the New York region, including Kennedy.
 

At the moment, many have been spending millions of dollars to make the changes needed to accommodate the A380. New passenger gates must be built. In some cases, runways or taxiways must be moved or expanded.
 At some airports, taxiways over highways need to be strengthened to carry the additional weight.
 

Over the last few months, Airbus has sent the A380 to about 40 airports around the globe to generate publicity and give rides to local officials and the media. The flight in Washington this week will carry members of Congress, their staffs and other government officials.
 

Part of the reason for the demonstration tour is to see whether the plane can actually fit at gateway airports (and to prompt airports that are lagging to speed up their renovations). At night, airports will test how the plane maneuvers at gates and how it negotiates taxiways and clears buildings.
 

At Kennedy airport, planning for the A380 began a decade ago. While the A380 was designed to fit into any airport that can handle a 747, most American airports still needed to make modifications on the tarmac and in their terminals to accommodate the A380.
 

“In 1996, Airbus came to us and was describing the plane,” said James Fazio, chief operating officer of JFK International Airport Terminal, the management company that operates Terminal 4 at Kennedy. “I remember looking at them and thinking, ‘Are they crazy?’ But Airbus persevered and started to push us to make the changes we needed to make.”
 

At Kennedy, where the runways were laid out in 1948, anticipating the A380 led to a $179 million modernization program. Further changes could raise the tab to around $300 million.
 
And even though Fazio has seen planes of many sizes and shapes, he is still impressed with the massive scale of the A380.
 
“Wait until it flies over Manhattan,” he said. “It will block out the sun.”
 

The Airbus easily surpasses the Boeing 747 in the tale of the tape, she’s as tall as a seven-story building, roomy enough to fit 70 vehicles on its wings*, as heavy as 500 Volkswagen Golfs and big enough to carry 35 million ping pong balls.
 

The Americans in charge are peeved at how a leg-up by European governments ensured the world’s largest passenger plane was built in the first place.
Why are they so disgruntled? Mainly, because of how Airbus has affected the United State’s indigenous aerospace giant Boeing.
 
Two years ago, Airbus overtook Boeing to become the world’s best-selling aircraft maker, and with the A380 it has stolen yet another march on its rival, popping it to the top spot in the large aircraft long-haul market which was dominated by the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet for four decades.
 
The US, determined not to allow a repeat, last year unilaterally cancelled a 1992 agreement with the European Union that allowed governments to lend money to cover one-third of the development costs of a new aircraft.
 

Brussels, which has hit back with accusations that Boeing has long been receiving unfair assistance in the form of lucrative space and defense contracts, refuses to accept the US claim that the agreement is void.
 
The issue is set to escalate into a full blown trade war. EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson last week ended a ceasefire by insisting member states should be free to offer repayable launch aid to the next Airbus project; the A350 medium-sized aircraft.
 
The US, which according to acid tongues, is looking after the best interests of the A350 rival, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, has responded by threatening to take the matter to the World Trade Organization.
 
And so the tit-for-tat pantomime is getting louder, with Europe vowing to bring in the WTO to rule on the legality of US support for its aerospace industry.
 

The trade spat has set the stage for a commercial brawl between Boeing and Airbus, with neither one accepting that they have accepted unfair subsidies, and both insisting that the other one receives market-distorting assistance.
 The launch aid Airbus hopes to get for its A350 would only repayable if the aircraft was to fail to achieve decent sales; not exactly a loan granted on commercial terms.
 

The commercial logic behind the Dreamliner, meanwhile, is similarly skewed. Parts production for the aircraft has been backed with financial support from the states of Washington and Kansas.
 
And its Japanese suppliers are on the receiving end of soft government loans with similar terms to those offered Airbus – adding another major economy to the list of candidates the WTO might have to scrutinize.
 

Diplomacy is not working well under these circumstances, and it is unlikely to do so for one good reason.
 
The US – or at least Boeing – stands to gain from any delays in finding a resolution, since this threatens to put off European governments’ support for the Airbus A350 project.
 
Timing is crucial, at least if Boeing is right in predicting that the market will prefer direct long-haul flights – such as those offered by the 787 Dreamliner and the A350 – to the hub-to-hub solution offered by the giant A380.
 

If this proves to be the case, then the early arrival of the 787 Dreamliner – expected to be a full two years before the anticipated arrival of the A350 – would help Boeing win back market share, not least since Airbus is struggling to make sure the A350 is as good as its rival.
 

In these contentious times, both companies are in desperate need of strong leadership.
 

And yet, after recent clashes between the industry titans Noel Forgeard of Airbus and Harry Stonecipher of Boeing, both groups are finding themselves searching for new chief executives.
Boeing’s Stonecipher was ousted in March over a relationship with a female executive. Forgeard, meanwhile, is leaving Airbus next month to become co-chief executive of EADS, the 80% owner of Airbus, where a struggling defense division will require much of his attention.
 
The Airbus succession strategy has been torn apart by a lengthy political tug-of-war between France and Germany, with Forgeard’s most obvious heir, Airbus chief operating officer Gerard Blanc, being vetoed by Germany.
In fact, recent EADS and Airbus leadership battles have caused bad blood between the two leading EADS backers, removing their focus from where, perhaps, it should be: firmly on the US.
 

Over at Boeing, meanwhile, Stonecipher’s ousting was widely seen as serious for the company, since his arrival had marked the start of a clean-up operation following a scandal in 2003.
 
At the time, chief financial officer Michael Sears was fired then sentenced to four months in prison, after hiring a former Air Force weapons buyer. Boeing chairman and chief executive Phil Condit resigned soon afterwards.
Stonecipher’s temporary successor James Bell has been named interim chief executive, but the search for a permanent candidate is still on.
It seems both Airbus and Boeing are lacking coherent succession strategies for their chiefs, and both are worse off as a consequence.
 
Save a little sympathy for the billionaires out there.
 
Their calendars are packed with international events. They attend summits on government fiscal policy and meet politicians to discuss emergency funding for drought-ridden nations. Or, as was recently reported about billionaire investor Warren Buffett, they perform financial feats like bailing out Lloyds of London.
 

Transporting your entourage from country X to country Y in time for the next urgent gathering of the great and the good can be a complex undertaking. When they fly commercial, billionaires and their fellow travelers must struggle through seething crowds at airport terminals and wait in long lines for airline check-in and security processing. They sit scrunched like human pretzels in too-small seats where flight attendants sometimes cannot even provide a drink of water.
 

Or they do something about it.
 
Eager to make their trips as hassle-free as possible, many of these individuals have taken to flying on private jets. Typically these small airplanes carry between six and 20 people and check-in is handled at the general-aviation section of an airport. Passenger boarding and disembarkation take place on specially reserved areas of the tarmac, and helicopter connections can usually be provided if required.
 
Recently, however, a new trend has emerged at the very top of the market: the conversion for private ownership of much larger–and more expensive–jets that are normally associated with commercial airlines. These are planes like the Airbus A319 and A320; Boeing’s B737 and B757; and even the twin-aisle wide-bodies, the B747, B767 and B777.
 
Then there is the Airbus A380.
 

What might the double-deck luxury interior look like? Lufthansa Technik, a provider of technical support and maintenance for over 300 of the world’s airlines and operators, has designed an Airbus A380 for potential private clients that includes rooms with king-sized beds, deep pile carpeting and en-suite bathrooms; an office with Web and e-mail access; a dining room that can be used for entertaining guests or conducting business meetings; and a theater.
 
For billionaire aviation enthusiasts ownership of a customized Airbus A380 represents treasure beyond price.
 

And while commercial passengers are likely never to experience the deluxe accommodations of the privately owned Airbus A380s of the future, it seems some are willing to spread the wealth. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson has already declared his intention to install for the general flying public a range of products in the Upper Class cabin on his Virgin Atlantic fleet of Airbus A380s, including double bedrooms, bars, beauty salons and casinos.
 So perhaps in the future, even non-VIP passengers will be able to enjoy an era of luxurious and glamorous flying made possible by the Airbus 380.
 

                                                                        -30-
 

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