The white jet with a blue tail picked up speed down the runway and lifted smoothly into the blue skies.

And to the applause of thousands, the world's largest passenger jet, the Airbus A380, was airborne above Blagnac, a suburb of Toulouse

"The takeoff went perfectly," Alain Garcia, an Airbus engineering executive, said.

The flight capped 11 years of preparation and £6.8 billion in spending.

Spectators camped out by the airport yesterday to be there for what some said was Europe's biggest aviation event since the first flight of the supersonic Concorde in 1969.

The plane was carrying a crew of six and 22 tonnes of test instruments.

And the A380, with a catalogue price of £147 million, represents a huge bet by Airbus that international airlines will need bigger aircraft to transport passengers between ever-busier hub airports.

The president of Boeing's French subsidiary, Yves Galland, said he watched the televised take-off and "shared the emotion of the people of Airbus".

Just this week, Air Canada said it had firm orders for 32 new Boeing jets, including 14 787s, with a list value of about £3.1 billion, and Air India announced plans to order 50 Boeing jets worth £ 3.5 billion.

Air India wants 27 of the 787s, which will carry up to 257 passengers and have a list price of £63 million, boosting total orders and commitments for the plane to 237. The 787, which was launched a year ago, is scheduled to enter service in 2008.

So far, Airbus has booked 154 orders for the A380, which it says will carry passengers five per cent farther than Boeing's longest-range 747 jumbo at a per-passenger cost up to one-fifth below its rival's.

But Airbus has yet to prove that it can turn a profit on its superjumbo investment, a third of which came from European governments.

Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space, is also planning to bring its own mid-sized jetliner, the A350, into service in 2010 - two years after the Boeing 787.

Aviation experts say risks remained very slim on the A380 maiden test flight since a plane's aerodynamic characteristics are already well known before it takes off, thanks to years of computer modelling and wind-tunnel tests.

Problems are more likely, but still very rare, later in the test-flight programme, when the pilots deliberately take the plane to its limits. An Airbus A330 prototype crashed in July 1994, killing chief test pilot Nick Warner and six others as they conducted a simulated engine failure exercise.

The test- flight programme is likely to finish before the A380 enters service for Singapore Airlines in mid-2006, Airbus said - about three months behind schedule.

Part of the delay is down to the superjumbo's struggle with a weight problem that consumed months of engineering time and most of the programme's £ 987 million in cost overruns.

Competitive pressure on airlines to offer plusher business- class seating tightened the squeeze - compounded by the A380's sheer scale.