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Airbus' A380 prepares for takeoff
The A380 comes with a $250 million price tag.
Are "super jumbos" the future of air travel?
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Airbus is starting production of what will become the world's largest passenger jet. CNN's Jim Bittermann reports
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LONDON, England -- In a few months' time the world's largest commercial airliner will take to the skies for its maiden test flight, carrying with it the fortunes of European aerospace giants Airbus.

Developed over five years with a budget of 11 billion dollars, the 555-seater Airbus A380 comes with a hefty $275 million price tag.

With 50 airline commitments in place, 129 orders have already been signed and the first A380s off the production line are due to enter service in 2006.

Spread across four European countries, Airbus has 6,000 engineers working on the A380, while more than 1,000 companies are supplying parts towards the project.

But responsibility ultimately rests with two men: Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard and program director Charles Champion.

"It's a very big project, it's true," says Forgeard, who took charge of the company in July 2001.

"Certainly I will not tell you it's a small project. I am very much involved so I can tell you frankly that I'll carry the fame or the blame."

The main technical issue in the development of the A380 has been keeping the plane's weight down to ensure it meets the performance specifications guaranteed to airlines vulnerable to rising fuel costs.

"The weight has been a challenge and is always a challenge in such a large aircraft so we have been working since day one to reduce the weight of the various components and now actually it's rather creeping down," says Champion.

"We are stabilizing towards a level which is compatible with the guarantees we have provided our customers."

Forgeard also denies that increasing oil prices pose a threat to super-jumbos such as the A380.

"High fuel prices are very favorable to very economical airplanes, so high fuel prices are very favorable to the A380 which burns a lot less than any other airplane on the seat-mile cost," he says.

Major challenge

Keeping control over key project criteria such as weight or cost is a major challenge that requires good organization, especially for a company such as Airbus with major sites spread across Europe.

While the A380's wings are assembled in North Wales, where 750,000 holes have to be drilled in each one, the plane's fuselage is built in Germany and France and parts of the tail section come from Spain.

Then there is the small matter of getting it all to the final assembly line in Toulouse, France. Parts are shipped to Bordeaux, then floated down the Garonne river by barge and finally delivered by road.

For Forgeard and Champion, the key to good management is delegation. Fortunately at Airbus they can rely on an expert and experienced staff. With many workers on the A380 pooled from other Airbus projects, only 20 percent working on the project are new to the company.

"We have segmented the project in what we called aircraft components, manufacturing and development teams," explains Forgeard.

Champion adds: "We decided to have small teams in charge of deliverables; the fuselage, the wing systems etc. Each of these teams is fully accountable in terms of budget, in terms of schedule, in terms of performance.

"You're sure that everything works well when the right guy, takes the right decision at the right time and at the right level. Otherwise if you end up controlling everything, it doesn't work."

The A380 is assembled at Airbus' headquarters in Toulouse, France.

For his part Forgeard, takes responsibility for the overall direction of the project, ensuring it is on target to meet the demands of Airbus' customers. He is briefed weekly on the project, while the board gets a formal update once a quarter.

But he is quite clear where his number one priority lies: ultimately, the airlines will make or break the A380. And if it fails to meet performance guarantees they're not going to buy it.

"I first check that the project is still tuned to the market needs, and it is," he says.

"I have to check that the airlines remain committed and they are. I visit them regularly to check their heart."

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