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A380 takes guinea-pig passengers aloft, Airbus braces for change

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PARIS (AFP) - The Airbus A380, the world's largest commercial airliner, took its first passengers aloft on a test flight, as the company announced a fresh management shakeup to grapple with delays plaguing the superjumbo. "It's fabulous, impressive," gushed Ludovic Lesbats, one of 474 Airbus employees who volunteered for a seven-hour flight designed to test the plane's cabin arrangements.Passengers speaking to reporters after the 6,500-kilometer (4,062-mile) trip across Europe hailed the aircaft's quietness and the comfort of its interior."We didn't feel the take-off ... and people could move about without any discomfort," Lesbats said. Bjorn Abken, employed by Airbus's German subsidiary, added: "The surpising thing is that the plane doesn't seem to be so big on the inside. Everything is well-planned and well-designed."The flight originated at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in southwestern France and took passengers over a swathe of Europe from Corsica to Britain. Three more such test flights are planned between now and September 8, lasting seven to 14 hours and one of which will be at night.On the ground Monday the new president and chief executive of Airbus, Christian Streiff, moved decisively to overcome production problems, removing the head of the A380 program and preparing to unveil special measures by the end of September.Managing the development of the A380 is now the job of Mario Heinen, from Luxembourg, formerly responsble for the medium-haul A320. He replaces Charles Champion, who becomes a special advisor to Streiff.Champion is the the third high-ranking executive to pay a personal price for the difficulties the A380 program has encountered. The Airbus parent EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company, announced in June that deliveries of the A380 to commercial customers would be delayed by at least a year because of production setbacks.That revelation, coupled with a warning that EADS could suffer a two-billion-euro (2.6-billion-dollar) decline in operational earnings by 2010, jolted the company and prompted the resignation of EADS co-chief executive Noel Forgeard and Airbus president Gustav Humbert.Foregard was replaced by Louis Gallois, head of France's state raliway SNCF and Humbert by Streiff. The removal of Champion as director of the A380 program is one of boldest actions to date by Streiff, who in July shortly after his appointment announced an Airbus audit to serve as a basis for productivity-boosting measures.Airbus has said the conclusions of the study will be made known at the end of September. The company at that time is expected to draw up a new delivery timetable for the A380. Singapore Airlines is to receive the first A380 for commerical use in December, six months behind schedule.To date 16 companies have ordered 159 of the superjumbos, which can carry up to 840 passengers. Airbus could also decide to impose a new cost-cutting scheme at a time when its revenues are suffering from a strong euro, which puts it at a disadvantage with its number one rival, Boeing of the United States.Streiff has already ordered a worldwide hiring freeze "until further notice," according to the manufacturer. Boeing is now well ahead of Airbus this year in orders after dominating its US competitor for the previous five years. Airbus in the first seven months of 2006 received 200 firm orders for its commercial planes to 518 for Boeing, EADS shares on Monday fell 0.86 percent to close at 23.08 euros.

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