* BA welcomes first A380, world's biggest commercial jet
* Part of $15 bln upgrade to top-end, fuel-efficient planes
* Analyst says ageing fleet has held BA back
* Airbus upbeat on A380 after sluggish orders so far
British Airways welcomed its first Airbus A380 jet, the world's biggest commercial aircraft, on Thursday, part of a $15 billion 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 through the grey clouds over Heathrow airport in west London was greeted by hundreds of British Airways (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 will run to Los Angeles on Sept. 24, the British flag carrier said, slightly earlier than the originally planned October start.
"These aircraft are the start of a new era for British Airways," said Chief Executive Keith Williams, noting the airline hadn't had any 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."
BA's ageing long-haul fleet has put it at a "cost and quality" disadvantage to rivals, especially deep pocketed Middle Eastern carriers such as Emirates, which run newer, more cost-effective planes that are also more comfortable and better equipped, according to Davy analyst Stephen Furlong.
BA, part of International Airlines Group (IAG), received the first of its new Boeing 787 Dreamliners last month, making it the first airline in Europe to fly both new planes once commercial operations begin.
The aircraft are the centrepiece of a ten-year, $15 billion 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 wipe out progress at BA.
IAG, Europe's third-biggest airline group by market value, made an operating loss of 278 million euros ($361 million) in the first three months of this year, with Iberia causing 202 million 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.
NOISE AND CAPACITY
BA has 12 A380s and 42 Dreamliners on order for delivery over the next ten years. The A380 is built for use between major international airports, while the Dreamliner is intended for less busy routes and uses lightweight technology.
Sales of the A380 have been sluggish over the last five years, with Airbus announcing 262 orders, of which 105 are now in service. Attention has turned to smaller, lighter planes like the Airbus A350 and the Dreamliner.
However, Airbus Executive Vice President of Programmes, Tom Williams, saw a change as global growth picks up. "With passenger numbers now rising and airlines adding capacity again we feel the A380 is the right plane for this time," he said.
BA's A380s, which will carry 469 people, will go a small way to helping it cope with capacity constraints at Heathrow.
Business lobby groups have said Britain risks falling behind if it does not 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.
Noise produced by airlines using Heathrow affects some 700,000 local residents, according to Britain's Civil Aviation Authority, more than any other airport in Europe.
Airbus says the A380 makes half the noise of Boeing's 747 - previously the world's biggest jet - during take off, while Boeing says its Dreamliner is equivalent to the sounds of heavy traffic when standing at a roadside.
Both manufacturers say their new planes burn at least 20 percent less fuel than similar, older models.
BA's A380 has a lower seat density than many of its competitors, as it looks to lure more passengers to first and business class seats, the most profitable part of its business.
Its fleet modernisation program also includes orders for six new Boeing 777-300ERs, along with 18 Airbus A350 jets.