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Giant A380 draws crowds in France

By CNN's Jim Bitterman

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Airbus is starting production of what will become the world's largest passenger jet. CNN's Jim Bittermann reports

TOULOUSE, France (CNN) -- Down a narrow country road on a dark night, the first sections of what will be the world's largest airliner were threading their way through the village of Levignac, France.

The giant parts towered over the heads of the locals who stayed up late not to miss a convoy like this. But it won't be their only chance.

Soon -- if all goes according to the designers' plans -- these huge Airbus A380 sections will be passing through the village once a week, as sub-assemblies from all over Europe are brought together at the Airbus plant in southwestern France.

Noel Forgeard, Airbus CEO, said: "It's not a gamble, it's a well thought economic decision based on market realities on a product the airlines have requested."

Airbus and its partners in the A380 project have put nearly $11 billion on the table -- an investment that for now seems to be paying off since customers have already signed orders for 129 aircraft at $275 million each.

What they will receive is a plane with 50 per cent more room inside than a Boeing 747.

With all that extra space, A380 promoters giddily talk about airborne exercise rooms, casinos and bistros.

But in the end, there is nothing to stop a low-cost airline from turning an aircraft designed to seat 555 passengers into a flying sardine can with a capacity of nearly 800.

Airbus officials say the wider cabin means wider seats even in economy, and that since business and first class passengers pay the bulk of air transportation, airlines buying the A380's extra room might be induced to use some of it for luxurious extras.

A shower for first class passengers, for example.

Airbus hopes to fly the A380 for the first time early next year and deliver the first aircraft to a customer in 2006.

Already though, airports are making large new investments to accommodate the colossus.

Just a few days ago, authorities in New York voted to spend nearly $180 million to widen runways strengthen taxiway bridges and increase passenger handling capacity.

Airbus says given the increases in passenger volume, it is either spend for bigger planes, or spend for more and bigger airports.

For now though, about the only ground-handling problem the airbus A380 has created is crowd control, as people turn out along the aircraft's low-flying path to the assembly line.

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