PARIS France honored the A380 superjumbo with a place in its national aerospace museum on Tuesday, granting it equal status with the Boeing 747 even as questions pile up over the future of the industry's biggest jets.
The A380 test plane, the fourth to be built and the second to actually fly in 2005, flew to Le Bourget near Paris from Toulouse with 50 technicians who will spend months adapting it for public view.
It is the first time Airbus has transferred one of its test planes to a museum and a victory for curators who for years have coveted the world's largest jetliner, designed to carry up to 853 people in all-economy seating or 544 in standard layout.
The plane will see out its retirement alongside a vintage 747 once flown by Air France and is expected to become a popular tourist attraction when it goes on display in 2018.
But after fewer than 10 years in service, the A380's double-decker design is less successful commercially than designers hoped.
Air France recently swapped its remaining order for two A380s for three smaller Airbus A350s, symbolizing the shift in demand to a new generation of lightweight jets.
Airbus insists the A380 still has a future and rejects any link between the exhibit and the A380's commercial fortunes. Boeing has also put three of its 787 Dreamliners in museums.
"Museums are not just about preserving the past; they are also a window on the future," said Jacques Rocca, president of the Airitage association, set up to preserve Airbus artefacts.
In the 1990s, Airbus's vision of the future was a super-capacity airliner able to revolutionize air travel and displace the profitable 747 by linking the world's largest travel hubs.
Boeing disagreed and later developed the smaller 787, though it hedged its bets by updating the 747, with disappointing results.
Since 2005, the A380 superjumbo has been a show-stopper at events like the Paris Airshow, yards from the aerospace museum at Le Bourget. Airbus and Dubai's Emirates, the largest A380 operator, say its roomy cabin is a hit with passengers.
Despite this, the A380 has not proved as popular with fleet planners because of the risks of being unable to fill it up in a fragile economy, as well as advances in twin-jet design.
Airbus sees demand for 1,264 very large jets like the A380 and 747-8 over 20 years: higher than Boeing's forecast of 530.
But it is also expected to confirm in its annual results next week that the A380 will go back into loss after its biggest customer Emirates deferred some deliveries this year. An Airbus spokesman reaffirmed the company's delivery targets.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Keith Weir)