During the ILA Berlin Air Show last June, Emirates Airlines announced the purchase of 90 model A380's, for a total sale of over 30 billion dollars. This single contract has assured the success of a project whose aims were no less than to construct the largest commercial jet in the world and thus bring to an end the 40-year dominance of the reigning king of jumbo jets, the Boeing 747.

The European consortium has been awaiting this moment since the beginning of the 1990's, when from their Toulouse headquarters, they went ahead on the decision to design and construct a gigantic commercial jet weighing in excess of 650 tons at takeoff (including fuel), capable of transporting 800 passengers. Industry experts predicted that Airbus' A380, nicknamed the Superjumbo, would suffer a fate similar to that of the Concorde: a technological marvel with very little commercial appeal.

And now Airbus is coming close to proving the sceptics wrong. Following the spectacular Emirates contract, the consortium has booked orders for 234 units, each with a price tag between 330 and 400 million dollars, depending on how they are equipped. According to experts, with an initial investment of 20 billion euros, Airbus would have to sell at least 300 Superjumbos to guarantee the project's profitability.

No sex, please – this is premium class

And if the A380 joins the fleets of the world's largest carriers, its American rival will suffer a bitter defeat. Boeing will not even be able to riposte, because there just is not room in the marketplace for another Superjumbo. The writing is on the wall: Airbus is set to dominate the giant plane sector for decades to come, maintains Murdo Morrison, editor-in-chief of industry magazine "Flight International".

The A380 is most significantly beating the competition in the operating-cost arena. Fully loaded, the plane consumes less than 3 litres/100 km per passenger, compared to 5 litres for the other jumbo jets. This significant boost in efficiency is mainly due to the overall weight reduction strategy used in constructing the A380. Wherever possible, aluminium has been replaced by even lighter composite materials. With the dramatic rise in fuel prices, reduced operating costs constitute an essential criterion when shopping for a plane. For the Paris-New York route, Air France has already replaced two jets with a single A380, at a savings of 8 million euros per day.

Still, it is not easy to find enough passengers to fill such a large plane for a given route, so to encourage flyers to take their jumbo jets, many airlines have decided to personalise their cabins. Singapore Airlines has opted to limit the number of economy-class seats in favour of private "staterooms" for passengers who can afford the premium fare. The beds are so large, and privacy so well assured, that clients are reminded: "No sex, please". Air France has created an electronic art gallery for its business-class. And Emirates Airlines' jumbos have showers for first-class passengers.

American carriers have yet purchase the Superjumbo

Even passengers in economy class benefit from the plane's overall luxury, as the seat width is 48 cm, 4 cm more than in a 747. The Boeing jumbo loses the contest hands down in business class, where passengers can stretch out in a seat that is 86 cm wide. No other long-haul plane offers such ample space.

"Only a dozen airlines offer regular flights over the longest routes, like London-Sydney. The client will choose the one that offers the greatest comfort. No airline can ignore the luxury factor over the long term", states John Greensham, of the London institute Ascend Worldwide, which specialises in the analysis of trends in the aviation market. From his point of view, this is one of the principal reasons for the drop in orders for the Boeing 747 since 2007, when the A380 entered the marketplace. In the 1970's and 80's Boeing delivered between fifty and seventy 747's per year, but this number has dropped to fourteen in 2008, eight in 2009, and zero this year.

Airbus still faces two challenges down the line: even though some American carriers have purchased smaller Airbus planes, not one has ordered the Superjumbo. And not a single A380 has been sold to a Japanese airline.