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Airbus opens its books for the world's biggest jumbo. But is it a plane too far?

It is every plane-spotter's dream and every environmentalist's nightmare: a 580-tonne super-jumbo with 656 passengers and 100,000 gallons of fuel on board. Not forgetting, of course, the gym, the Jacuzzi, the à la carte restaurant and the casino.

Airbus Industrie last week gave the go-ahead to start marketing the A3XX – the biggest aircraft the world has ever seen. With a maximum payload of 150 tonnes, a wingspan of 262 feet and a double-decker seating configuration, this giant bird will dwarf everything else in the skies. So will the development costs, which have crept up from $8bn to $12bn and could well reach $20bn, according to some estimates.

If there is sufficient demand for the A3XX, the four Airbus partners, including Britain's BAe Systems, will start production of the aircraft early next year. Entry into service is scheduled for the end of 2005.

Airbus is confident there will be a big enough market for the A3XX to justify the colossal investment – a third of which is being met by the taxpayers of Britain, France, Germany and Spain. It estimates orders for 1,500 such aircraft over the next twenty years, at least half of which it expects to capture.

Others, including the world's biggest jet manufacturer Boeing, are less convinced, believing the market to be a fraction of that size – perhaps as few as 350 aircraft.

If it does get off the drawing board, the A3XX will certainly represent the pinnacle of aeronautical engineering achievement. But is it a plane too far?

The critics say airports will not be able to cope with the A3XX, residents will not put up with its noise and passengers will not warm to the experience of flying with so many other people – there are plans for a stretch-A3XX with up to 1,000 seats. Just getting on and off the plane could take longer than flying from London to Rome.

Airbus has an answer to most of these criticisms. First, the A3XX has been designed to fit into an 80 metre by 80 metre "box", allowing it to use existing runways, taxiways and aircraft stands at the world's big international airports.

Second, the four-engined A3XX will have to be at least as quiet as existing Boeing 747s, and cleaner, in terms of environmental emissions. Third, the layout and number of exits will be sufficient to allow a 90-minute turnaround from the moment an A3XX lands to the moment it takes off again.

So far there have been "expressions of interest" for 50 to 60 aircraft from eight carriers including Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Air France and Virgin Atlantic. "The market has signalled loud and clear that it wants the A3XX," said Noel Forgeard, the chief executive of Airbus, yesterday.

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But these expressions of interest are meaningless on their own. For Airbus to press the button on the A3XX, they have to be turned into legally-binding commitments to place orders or "letters of intent".

Airbus says the A3XX programme could generate up to 60,000 jobs across Europe, 22,000 of which would be in the UK, where the aircraft's wings will be made. In total, BAe believes the programme could benefit UK exports to the tune of stg£20bn over the next 40 years.

It is for these reasons the British government has agreed to give BAe stg£530m in launch aid for the A3XX, repayable through a levy on sales. It is the biggest single industrial aid programme in Britain's history and brings total UK support for Airbus over the last twenty years to stg£1.35bn.

But it will be cold commercial reality and not government aid which dictates the success or failure of the A3XX. The basic 555-seat, three-class configuration variant will cost $212m. To justify those sort of sums, the airline industry has demanded an aircraft with operating costs 15-20 per cent lower than existing jumbos. If Airbus can deliver such a plane then all the airlines have to do is persuade their passengers to fly in it.

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