Korean Air showed off its first Airbus A380, outfitted with a unique full business class upper deck, in a pair of special flights Thursday, a day before the launch of regular international service.
Korean Air Lines Co., South Korea's largest airline, is the sixth global carrier to introduce the hulking aircraft and the first in Northeast Asia to take delivery. The plane is manufactured by Toulouse, France-based Airbus.
The jumbo passenger jet rolled down the runway at Incheon International Airport west of Seoul on Thursday in the first of two demonstration flights. It flew east across South Korea and out over the ocean, passing low near the Dokdo islets that lie in waters between South Korea and Japan before returning.
The two islets are claimed by both countries. Seoul, however, controls them and stations a contingent of police there. The territory is known as Takeshima in Japan.
Korean Air's A380 begins international service Friday with roundtrip flights from Incheon to Japan's Narita airport, near Tokyo, and then from Incheon to Hong Kong later the same day.
Air France, Germany's Lufthansa, Dubai-based Emirates, Australia's Qantas and Singapore Airlines also fly the A380.
Cho Yang-ho, Korean Air's chairman and CEO, said that the introduction of the jet is part of the airline's emphasis on service.
"This is another step to show our customers our comfortable and efficient airplanes," Cho told The Associated Press on the day's first flight, for journalists. A second demonstration flight for VIPs was also scheduled Thursday.
Cho emphasized the airline's special configuration in which the upper deck is devoted solely to business class seats. Korean Air is so far the only airline to utilize the A380 in such a way.
Korean Air plans service to Bangkok beginning next month, to New York in August, to Paris in September and to Los Angeles in October, the airline said.
Keith Stonestreet, Airbus' product marketing director for the A380, said that Korean Air's launch of the plane helps his company promote market acceptance for it in Asia, which he called the "key market" for the future.
"We're looking to the growth of the Asian airlines as being a core part of the business," Stonestreet said. China Southern Airlines will be the next carrier in the region to take delivery later this year, with Malaysia Airlines System and Thai Airways International set for 2012, he added.
Korean Air has ordered a total of 10 A380s. The airline has also chosen to go with the fewest number of seats _ 407 _ of any airline flying the plane so far. Air France and Lufthansa have the most seats at present with 525 to 530, Stonestreet said.
Air Austral, which flies between Paris and La Reunion in the Indian Ocean, plans to take the A380 in an all economy configuration of 820 seats, he said.