A Really Big Plane

John Travolta arrives for the premiere of Touchstone Pictures' "Wild Hogs" at the El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Airbus Industrie shareholders have approved the official launch of the superjumbo jet to be called the A380, clearing the way to build the world's largest passenger plane.

Known until now as the A3XX, Airbus hopes the huge, 555-seat jumbo will help clip the wings of its rival Boeing Co. in the battle for the skies.

CBS News Correspondent Elaine Cobbe reports Airbus plans to make four to five planes a month but won't break even on the new aircraft until it has sold 250 planes.

So far, Airbus has received 50 firm orders and 42 options for the double-decker A380, which will have larger cabins, more floor space and staircases, and can be equipped with bars, casinos and lounges.

"This decision heralds a new era in the history of flight, with the introduction into service of the world's 21st century jetliner in early 2006," the company said in a statement.

Manfred Bischoff, chairman of the Airbus supervisory board, said the A380 represents a "great day" for the consortium.

"We cannot be more proud of the product we developed," he said. "We intend to once more set a standard for quality and efficiency."

Airbus said its shareholders' supervisory board gave the green light for the $12 billion project at its headquarters in Toulouse in south-central France. Airbus is owned by the European Aeronautic Space and Defense Company, which holds 80 percent, and BAE Systems, with 20 percent.

The superjumbo will be a direct challenge to Seattle-based Boeing's dominance of the long-haul, high-capacity market with its fleet of 747s.

Tuesday's approval by the shareholders was largely a formality.

Airbus officials had originally said that the company would need around 50 firm orders for the yet-to-be-built A380 in order to make the project economically viable.

Last Friday, Airbus reached that target after Virgin Atlantic Airways said it had ordered six jets and taken options on six others in a deal worth more than $3.8 billion.

Five other airlines have already signed up for the jet. Germany's Lufthansa AG and British Airways are also in talks.

The biggest order came from Qantas Airlines Ltd., and was a double blow to Boeing as Qantas has been a client of the U.S. firm for more than 40 years. The Australian airline said last month that it would buy 12, making approval of the project almost inevitable.

As well as Qantas and Virgin, Airbus has secured firm orders from Singapore Airlines, Air France, Emirates Airlines, and the International Lease Finance Corp.

The superjumbo has intensified the rivalry between Airbus, which was created in 1972, and Boeing and highlighted their conflicting forecasts for air travel in the 21st century.

Airbus says the demand for larger planes is set to grow. It forecasts that the number of airliners in service with 400 seats or more will rise to 1,235 over the 20 years.

Boeing argues that airlines are more interested in smaller, more efficient planes that hve the range to bypass major hubs on their way to secondary cities. Boeing's biggest jet at the moment is the 747-400, which can carry 416 passengers.

However, Boeing has come up with plans for a stretch version of its 747 jet, which will seat some 520 people. It has not yet received any orders for the new jet, which it estimates will cost between $4 and $6 billion to develop.

Airbus has been gradually closing the gap on Boeing since its creation in 1972, and last year reported significantly more aircraft orders for the first time.



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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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