British Airways' new Airbus A380 comes in to land at Heathrow airport in London July 4, 2013. British Airways received its first Airbus A380 jet at Heathrow airport on Thursday, marking the start of modernising its aging fleet with new, more fuel-efficient planes able to better compete with fast-growing rivals. REUTERS/Paul Hackett (BRITAIN - Tags: BUSINESS TRANSPORT TRAVEL)

Rhys Jones London

British Airways (BA) yesterday welcomed its first Airbus A380 jet, the world’s biggest commercial aircraft, as part of a $15 billion (R151bn) upgrade to top-of-the-range planes that it hopes will give it a boost in the lucrative market for long-haul business travel.

The emergence of the fuel-efficient double-decker jet through the grey clouds over Heathrow airport in west London was greeted by hundreds of BA staff and spectators, a boon to a group that has been weighed down by its ageing fleet.

The plane touched down on time and taxied into a hangar near Heathrow terminal five, met by cabin crew in uniform waving British flags. The first long-haul flight on the A380 would run to Los Angeles in September, the British flag carrier said, earlier than the planned October start.

“These aircraft are the start of a new era for BA,” said chief executive Keith Williams, noting that the airline had not had new long-haul aircraft for 17 years.

“Over the next 15 months, we will take delivery of new aircraft at the rate of one a fortnight as we put ourselves at the forefront of modern aviation,” he said.

BA’s ageing long-haul fleet has put it at a “cost and quality” disadvantage to rivals, especially deep-pocketed Middle Eastern carriers, according to Davy analyst Stephen Furlong.

BA, part of International Airlines Group (IAG), received the first of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners last month, making it the first airline in Europe to fly both new planes as commercial operations begin.

The aircraft are the centrepiece of a 10-year, $15bn upgrade to BA’s long-haul fleet, which will include retiring older and less fuel-efficient Boeing 747-400 jumbos.

IAG will need to wring all the profit it can from its new jets if operational problems at its Spanish carrier Iberia continue to cut progress at BA.

IAG made an operating loss of e278 million (R3.6bn) in the first three months of this year, with Iberia causing e202m of that as it suffered from competition from low-cost rivals and high-speed trains and labour disputes. BA broke even during the quarter, helped by business and first-class traffic.

BA has 12 A380s and 42 Dreamliners on order for delivery over the next 10 years. The A380 is built for use between major global airports, while the Dreamliner is for less busy routes and uses lightweight technology.

Sales of the A380 have been slow over the past five years, with Airbus announcing 262 orders, of which 105 are now in service. Attention has turned to smaller, lighter planes such as the Airbus A350 and the Dreamliner.

But Airbus executive vice-president of programmes Tom Williams saw a change as global growth picked up.

BA’s A380s, to carry 469 people, will go a small way to helping it cope with capacity constraints at Heathrow.

Business lobby groups have said that Britain must boost flights to emerging economies. But plans for a third Heathrow runway were scrapped in 2010 when the government bowed to pressure from local residents and environmental groups.

The arrival of the A380s will be welcomed by bosses at Heathrow who plan to name and shame airlines found guilty of breaking noise limits at the airport as it seeks to win more public support for expansion plans.

Airbus says the A380 makes half the noise of Boeing’s 747 during take-off, while Boeing says its Dreamliner is equivalent to the sounds of heavy traffic when standing at a roadside.

Both firms say their new planes use 20 percent less fuel than older models. – Reuters