JANUARY 23, 2005 One of aviation history's most important aircraft was unveiled last week when the Airbus A380 superjumbo, the world's first full-length twin-deck aircraft debuted at a ceremony in Toulouse, France. The A380's forte is capacity - 50% more than a 747 - and depending on the seating configuration, can carry up to 800 passengers on a long haul flight. The A380 is also fuel efficient, and experts predict that in the maximum 800 seat configuration, it will be nearly half the cost per seat to an airline for a long haul flight. Not surprisingly, the marginal existence of most airlines in the global aviation industry has seen them respond positively to the A380 and Airbus has already taken 149 orders at US$280 million per plane.

The importance of the event for the European Union was obvious from those in attendance; the President of the French Republic, Jacques Chirac; the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Tony Blair; the Federal Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder; and the Prime Minister of the Spanish Kingdom, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero plus 5000 A-list guests, including the CEOs of the 14 airlines with orders for A380s.

The 555-seat A380 passenger aircraft has a range of up to 8,000nm/15,000km, allowing it to fly non-stop between Europe and Asia - in its 555 seat version, the aircraft has an extraordinary amount of passenger space and is seen by many as a flying resort.

Richard Branson told the assembled media that Virgin plans to include a casino and double beds on the company's A380s, quipping, "which means there will now be two ways of getting lucky on board our aircraft."

The three-deck long-range freighter version, the A380F, will be able to carry up to 152 tonnes of cargo on standard pallets up to 10,400km - this represents almost as many savings for the freight industry as the per-seat savings for the passenger industry.

Incorporating the most advanced technologies available in this decade, the A380 will be the most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly airliner ever built, while offering unequalled levels of passenger comfort and cargo carrying capability.

The first test flight of the 308-ton A380 is scheduled for late March and the plane will enter commercial service in 2006. The first A380F freighter version is expected to begin operations in 2008.

Foir more information on the A380, see these Gizmag articles detailing its design and first flight

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