HEATHROW AIRPORT, England (AFP) -The world’s biggest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, touched down for the first time at London’s Heathrow Airport to test new facilities at the world’s busiest international air hub.
The enormous white super-jumbo, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, landed at 1:19 pm (1219 GMT) and was met with applause by a welcoming party of media, Airbus staff and VIPs, including British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown.
The guests saw the double-decker plane arrive on schedule from behind large windows at Heathrow’s new Pier 6, which has been built to cater for the A380 and other wide-bodied giants of the future.
“This is a great day for London, a great day for Britain and British manufacturing, and a great day for European co-operation,” Brown told the reception on Thursday.
British pilot Ed Strongman meanwhile called it “an honour and pleasure” to have flown the A380 into Britain.
Following its touch-down under an overcast sky, the aircraft underwent compatability tests at the airport.
Heathrow, which is run by British airports operator BAA, is likely to be the A380’s first European destination when it enters service, which is expected to take place late this year.
About 25 airports worldwide would be able to accommodate the A380 by the end of 2006, and an estimated 66 by 2010, according to Airbus.
Airbus is a fully-consolidated subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). EADS owns 80 percent of the aircraft manufacturer and BAE Systems of Britain holds 20 percent.
En route to Heathrow, Strongman and his crew flew over two Airbus sites, in Broughton, north Wales, and Filton, near Bristol in southwest England.
The plants employ about 13,000 British workers, of which 50 were on hand at the Heathrow event.
Ahead of the landing, the managing director of BAA Heathrow Tony Douglas described the visit as “a monumental day in UK aviation history”.
Addressing a press conference alongside Airbus’ chief operating officer Charles Champion, who is also head of the A380 programme, Douglas announced the official opening of Pier 6.
The pier can accommodate up to four A380s at a time and seat 2,200 passengers waiting to board the giant planes.
The compatability tests, meanwhile, were being carried out with BAA, which is spending 450 million pounds (664 million euros, 848 million dollars) on work to accommodate such huge aircraft.
The A380, which can transport between 555 and 840 people, or 40 percent more than the Boeing 747, was to return to Berlin early Friday.
Singapore Airlines is slated to become the first carrier to put the plane into passenger service. Other airlines that have placed orders include Air France, Emirates, Qantas, Qatar Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
British Airways, however, has yet to sign up.
According to Airbus, the development costs of the A380 stand at about 10.7 billion dollars (8.4 billion euros), while the plane’s catalogue price is 300 million dollars.
So far, 16 airlines have lodged a total of 159 firm orders for the Airbus plane. Charles Champion, of Airbus, said Thursday that any airline wishing to order A380s at the present time would have to wait until 2011 for delivery.
The A380 — which is 240 feet (72.7 metres) in length and 80 feet (24.1 metres) high — made its maiden flight in April 2005 in the French of Toulouse, the home of Airbus Industrie.
As of May 12, four A380s had carried out 367 test flights, the equivalent of 1,238 flight hours.