The first ever vapour trails of the world's hugest passenger aircraft etched high over the fields of France marked the battlelines of a heavywight fight for aviation supremacy.

The result of that bareknuckle fight will have a huge bearing on the success and future direction of aerospace companies across the Midlands, the UK and Europe.

The A380 superjumbo roared into the sky on its inaugural flight - and with it soared the immediate hopes of European plane-making company Airbus which believes the age of the ultra-big aircraft has dawned.

Those hopes will be shared with at least five firms across the region, Derby- based engine makers Rolls-Royce, Dunlop Aerospace in Coventry, Wolverhampton-based Goodrich Actuation Systems, the Tufnel Group in Birmingham and the Lentern Group in Rugby, which are all supplying parts for the aircraft.

CBI director general Sir Digby Jones praised the vital British contribution, which equates to over half of the plane's total value.

He said: "British engines get this gigantic bird into the air, British wings keep it there and British landing gear brings it back to earth.

"It may be immodest but nevertheless true that they couldn't have done it without us. And don't be fooled into thinking otherwise because the new Airbus has taken off in France.

"Without the hard work of so many well-trained Brits, especially in the areas of research and development, the world's biggest and newest passenger plane would have the airborne potential of a penguin.

"The wings are assembled in Broughton, North Wales, Rolls-Royce provides the engines from its plant in Derby and the landing gear has been designed in Filton, near Bristol. UK technical competence shone through during the creation of Concorde and this talent is on show again."

The CBI leader stressed that the Airbus A380 highlighted the importance of competing at the high-value added, innovative end of global manufacturing.

Sir Digby said: "We have witnessed the shift in manufactured products that compete on price alone - commodity goods - from mature industrialised nations to lower cost countries like China and India.

"Many British companies have adjusted well to the restructuring of global manufacturing and have learned to compete with the best in the world. But many more UK firms still need to make this shift. Sadly MG Rover learnt this lesson too late."

But the European firm's American rival Boeing will be convinced that Airbus has wildly over-estimated the demand for large planes over the next 20 years.

And it seems that the headto-head competition could eventually prove healthy for the supply chain across our region.

Aviation experts believe that both companies will be successful, as airlines will want a little of everything and that will keep manufacturers happy.

There was a time in the early 1990s that Boeing was keen to work with Airbus on a possible new superjumbo. But American enthusiasm for the "big is beautiful" concept cooled and Airbus was left to go it alone.

The result has been the 555- seater A380, with a promise of stretch versions that will able to accommodate even more passengers.

Airbus has predicted that there will be demand for as many as 1,500 extra-large aircraft in the next 20 years as air travel expands.

Boeing reckons that world aviation will only need about 700 of these big planes.

While the A380 is designed to fly between major hubs such as London, New York and Los Angeles, the Boeing 787, which is the US company's next venture, can do the whole London-Australia hop in one go.

The 787, known as the Dreamliner, is also seen as an aircraft which can go from secondary city to secondary city - travelling, say, from Manchester to Cleveland in the United States.

Due to fly in passenger service in 2007, the 787 can take from between 220 and 296 passengers. It has 244 orders from 19 airlines.

"Both Boeing and Airbus could come out of all this smiling, " said David Kaminski-Morrow, deputy news editor of the Air Transport Intelligence internet news service. He went on: "Both companies have hedged their bets. Although Airbus has produced the A380, they are also planning their 250 to 290-seat A350, which could fly in passenger service by 2010.

"Boeing, in turn, is discussing the Boeing 747 Advanced - a stretch version of the jumbo jet. So it looks like the two companies have got all the angles covered."

Mr Kaminski-Morrow added: "I think there will be a demand for long, point-topoint non-stop journeys that will be possible on the Boeing 787.

"But there could be people who will not want to sit in an aircraft for 17, 18 or 19 hours.

"You will have to make the aircraft very comfortable. People will need to be able to sleep on board, have good entertainment and be in a nice environment.

"Some passengers will like the idea of flying to non-hub airports. But I think you will find that the long-established

major routes - like London-New York and London-Los Angeles - are always going to be in demand."

In the meantime, airports are gearing up to welcome the new breed of large aircraft.

One of the airports which has been getting on with the necessary alterations is Heathrow in west London, which is spending £450 million in terminal airfield modifications and will be able to take the A380 by summer 2006.

Heathrow chiefs have predicted that by 2016 as many as one in eight planes at Heathrow will be A380s.