Airbus, Europe's leading aircraft manufacturer, has finally made the first delivery of its world-known A380 superjumbo jets. The event has become an important step for Airbus against the background of ongoing economic trouble.
Singapore Airlines took delivery of the double-decker jet, the world's largest passenger plane, almost two years late.
"Until now, the A380 has been Airbus' baby. Today we are here to celebrate this beautiful mature aircraft coming of age," said Airbus President Thomas Enders at a handover ceremony that included a sound and light show.
Acknowledging the planemaker's difficulties, he told Airbus employees: "I realize how unsettling these last times, particularly the last 18 months, have been."
He thanked customers for sticking with the aircraft and said that increasing production to meet demand for the A380 "remains our greatest challenge for the next few years."
Singapore Airlines Chief Executive Chew Choon Seng said the A380 "is well worth the wait."
Airbus has gone though five CEOs as multiple delays in the A380 program resulted in massive write-offs and a restructuring plan that foresees 10,000 job cuts over four years - not to mention billions of euros (dollars) in lost profit.
Such delays have hurt more than just profits: Airbus' reputation has suffered, and U.S. rival Boeing Co. grabbed the top sales spot in 2006. But Boeing itself announced a six-month delay this week to its hot-selling 787 Dreamliner, leaving the double-decker A380 - at least temporarily - to claim the limelight.
Morale at Airbus has also been hurt by accusations that senior managers profited from knowledge about the A380's problems to cash in on share options. A preliminary report by the French Financial Markets Authority pointed to "massive insider trading" at European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co, Airbus' parent company.
Attended by around 500 guests, the handover ceremony was, however, much more low key than the triumphal 2005 ceremony when the A380 was unveiled. Then, the 10,000-strong audience included French, German and British leaders who admired the plane's exterior but were not allowed inside, where problems lurked.
Government officials, some of whom have come under the spotlight in the insider trading probe, were absent from Monday's event.
Singapore fitted its jet with 471 seats configured in three classes: 12 luxury suites on the main deck, 60 business class seats on the upper deck and 399 economy class seats on both decks. The plane is to replace one of three Boeing 747-400 jets already serving the Sydney-Singapore route.
Speaking earlier to Germany's ARD television, Enders dismissed suggestions that Airbus was pursuing the wrong strategy by producing the superjumbo in a market that likely will be interested in smaller planes and point-to-point routes in the future.
"It isn't 'either-or,' it is both," Enders said. "We also have aircraft for the long, thin routes - our 330 and 340, and in the future the 350. So we are not putting everything on the 380, but we are convinced that, above all in certain regions, the growth in air traffic can only be mastered with aircraft like the 380."
He said Airbus was moving past the problems that dogged the aircraft. "We have understood what we did wrong, we have established what we must change, and this process of change is now under way," he said.
The A380's inaugural commercial flight has been set for Oct. 25 from Singapore to Sydney. Singapore Airlines has auctioned all seats on the first flight on eBay, raising about US$1.25 million (EUR 880,000) for charity.
Chew said Singapore was "inconvenienced" by the tardy delivery, but added: "We are glad that Airbus took the time to make sure that the plane is fully tested and developed before it enters commercial service."
John Leahy, Airbus' chief salesman, suggested that the A380's problems will be over once the plane gets into commercial service.
"When this airplane is out flying, my marketing job will get a lot easier," he told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
Already 16 customers, including recently British Airways, have booked 189 orders or firm commitments, and Leahy says that number may exceed 200 by the end of the year.
Keith Stonestreet, product marketing director for the A380, said Airbus is targeting the seven airlines flying the Boeing 747, currently the biggest passenger plane, that haven't booked orders for the Airbus superjumbo. These include Northwest Airlines, Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific Airways.
The A380 includes glamorous features such as a cocktail bar complete with water fountain and a duty-free lounge. Some airlines will offer passengers the chance to freshen up with a shower.
The A380 represents Airbus' bet on future demand for long-haul travel between increasingly congested hub airports worldwide. Boeing argues passengers want point-to-point journeys between smaller airports and is targeting the more lucrative market for midsized jets.