The largest civil airliner ever built hatched from the wings of a butterfly-like object in a theatrical and ethereal ceremony at its final assembly plant in Toulouse, southwestern France.

French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero watched as Airbus offered a first glimpse of the twin-deck jetliner decked in new colours.

"Under the name of Airbus, Europe has written one of the most beautiful pages of its history," Airbus chief Noel Forgeard told 5000 guests invited for the unveiling in a massive hangar.

'Noel's Ark'

The message will not be lost on Boeing, whose 747 jumbo flies as the world's only passenger double-decker for now, and whose executives mock Forgeard's A380 as Noel's Ark.

The mammoth A380 has room for 70 cars to park on its wings and looks rather like the hump-backed Boeing 747 but with the top section stretching all the way back to the tail.

Airbus chief Forgeard: A380 is a
beautiful success for Europe 

Airlines have committed almost $40 billion to buying the 555-seat double-decker superjumbo, expecting it to lower operating costs and boost profits flattened by high oil prices and a slowdown in global aviation and tourism since 2001.

"This is a celebration after six or seven years of very hard graft for thousands of people," said Robert Nuttall, vice-president for marketing at engine-maker Rolls-Royce.

"It is also a bit of a coming-out party for an airlines industry coming out of a very, very hard time after 9/11."

Advance orders

Billed by Blair as a symbol of European cooperation, the plane boasts a more commercial future than the last European aviation project to get as much publicity, the Anglo-French Concorde.

The 1960s project gave birth to a plane as sleek and uneconomical as the A380 is obese yet potentially profitable.

Forgeard predicted Airbus would sell 700 to 750 of the planes, which cost $260 million to buy and boast a 15% gain in costs per seat-mile compared with the Boeing 747-400. 

"It is also a bit of a coming out party for an airlines industry coming out of a very, very hard time after 9/11"

Robert Nuttall,
Marketing Vice-President,
Rolls Royce

It already has 149 orders or commitments from 14 airlines for the aircraft that is to take its first test flight in early April. It is to enter service in 2006.

Forgeard confirmed talks to sell A380 planes to China and said he was confident of a deal by Easter or late March.

Deutsche Lufthansa chief Wolfgang Mayrhuber said he expected the airline to raise its order for 15 planes.

Cost overruns

The plane is costing Airbus and its shareholders EADS, the European aerospace group, and BAE Systems 12 billion euros to develop, including 1.45 billion euros of cost overruns linked in part to efforts to keep its weight down.

Boeing says the new Airbus will
not compete with its 747

"We are about five tonnes over the original spec weight but that is less than 1% of the 560 tonnes maximum take-off weight," commercial director John Leahy said on CNBC television.

"Airlines are not at all concerned," he said.

Some airports are also having to spend millions of dollars to accommodate the plane and its massive wingspan over taxiways.

Leahy, the American sales chief who has outsold archrival Boeing in the past two years to seize leadership of the commercial jet industry, says the A380 will make the 747 obsolete just as the legendary jumbo jet had pushed older models to the graveyard when it took to the skies 35 years ago.

Budget and luxury

Boeing has dismissed that suggestion, saying the A380 will lag sales of the original jumbo jet for years. 

Airlines will be able to configure the plane according to the service they want to sell, with some opting for an Upstairs-Downstairs feel with posh frills on the upper deck.

Others will be able to pack more than 800 passengers in an all-economy layout on both decks for cheap charter flights. 

Virgin Atlantic is taking no chances - it will offer a beauty therapist area, a gym, a casino and double beds.

"Since you have gaming and you have private double beds, maybe there are two ways of getting lucky on a Virgin plane," Virgin Group Chairman Richard Branson told reporters.