Aircraft Manufacturer and Movie Studio Deny Deal

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LOS ANGELES -- In a curious instance of high-profile product placement that apparently isn't, Buena Vista's new Jodie Foster thriller, Flight Plan, features a plane that is a dead ringer for the soon-to-be-released new Airbus A380.
The new Airbus A380 is the world's largest passenger plane.

Both Airbus and Buena Vista deny that the release of the movie just before the delivery of the first A380 jets in March 2006 are coordinated events.

Deny placement deal

A spokeswoman at Airbus North America said Flight Plan's producers, including Touchstone Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, never contacted the company for support. A Buena Vista representative said the massive airliner used as the main set of the movie is a fictional craft.

The actual Airbus A380, which made its first test flight last week, is a spectacular new product that goes into the record books as the world's largest airliner. A double-decker jet that can seat 555 passengers but has room for more than 800 eclipses rival Boeing's 747 as the world's largest airliner.

Days before the test flight, Buena Vista released the first trailer for Flight Plan featuring an amazingly similar craft. A Buena Vista representative, however, said that timing was also "coincidental."

But the fictional jet's details are very similar to the real thing: Two full decks of passenger seating with large spiral staircases, seven galleys, a full bar and a cockpit with bunks for the crew. "It's brand new," Ms. Foster's character says in the film's trailer. "It's the biggest."

Airbus is counting on the A380 to appeal to international airlines as it battles rival Boeing and its aging 747 fleet. Air France, Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Emirates, Lufthansa, Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines, Etihad Airways, Thai Airways, Qatar Airways, FedEx and UPS have ordered 154 A380 jets, as of January. The plane has a list price of $285 million. Airbus needs to sell 250 of the planes to break even, the company said. Given steep development costs, however, analysts say that number is much larger.

'They have to sell the planes'

"They have to sell the planes to the airlines," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy. "It's all about getting out there and promoting a positive image of the aircraft. It's all about making the numbers. You can make an argument that all publicity is good publicity."

Airbus has been promoting the A380 "as the cruise ship of the sky with tanning salons and duty-free shopping," Mr. Aboulafia said. "But if you're going to promote an unrealistic image of air transportation, you might find yourself facing the flipside of that and affected by other unrealistic images, too."

"Ultimately to airlines," he said, "it comes down to economics and not whether people enjoy the experience. Studies have shown that people don't pay a whole lot of attention to the kind of plane they'll be flying in when booking a flight."

Buena Vista said the film's producers needed a large airplane to make the plot believable. It just wouldn't have worked on a traditional single-deck jet. In the film, Ms. Foster's character is an aviation engineer who mysteriously loses her 6-year-old daughter during a flight from Germany to the U.S.

Viewers mistake it for real thing

The airplane designs and interiors in the film are so strikingly similar to the A380 that early viewers of the film have mistaken Flight Plan's set for the real jet, according to several test-screen reviews that have been posted on the Internet.

"The plane is probably just as much of an important character to the movie, and it was kinda cool/unique that it was that new Airbus plane," wrote one reviewer. According to another: "The plane itself is by far the most conspicuous character in the film. Looking suspiciously like Airbus' new dreadnaught of the skies, the plane in this movie is, in a word, enormous."

The first A380 was unveiled in January and boasts 49% more floor space and 35% more seating with wider seats and aisles than the 747. It's also designed to have 10% to 15% more range, lower fuel burn and emissions, and less noise.

Flight Plan will land in theaters Sept. 23, and comes at a time when Hollywood is in the midst of producing several airplane-based thrillers. Among them are DreamWorks' Red Eye and New Line Cinema's Flight 121, formerly called Snakes on a Plane. Not surprisingly, the plot deals with passengers who have to deal with deadly snakes that are released mid-flight by an assassin. In the past, Boeing's 747 had been a staple of airborne disaster films like Airport 1975, Airport '77 and Turbulence.
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