The Learning Curve

Over two years since its inaugural flight, ground operations for the mammoth Airbus A380 are still being revised.

The Airbus A380-800 first took to the skies on Oct. 25, 2007, when Singapore Airlines SQ380 flew 455 passengers from its home base to Sydney, Australia.

There are now more than 200 orders for the aircraft (a stretched version, the -900 will come into service in approximately 2015) with Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and, most recently, Air France already operating the double-decker superjumbo. Despite its size, the A380 is the most environmentally friendly aircraft in commercial fleets, offering better fuel economy than most hybrid passenger vehicles and generating less than half the noise of other aircraft on takeoff.

While it has hardly become a common sight at the world’s gateways, operations are significant enough for ground handlers to have learned some important lessons.

A lot of work was done prior to the A380’s entry into service. Airbus worked closely with the ground handling community during the design phase of the aircraft with a similar turnaround time to the Boeing 747 and minimal new ground handling equipment being the main considerations. The aircraft also made a number of validation flights to major hubs, which revealed both site-specific and universal requirements.

Around 90 percent of the equipment used for the A380 is common to other widebodies, but two new pieces were immediately identified — a 70-ton tow tractor and an upper deck catering vehicle.

The more common 50-ton tractors are compatible under some circumstances, but the stronger version is necessary during poor traction conditions or when the aircraft is at its maximum ramp weight (MRW). The catering truck, meanwhile, needed to extend over eight meters off the ground and then move horizontally to avoid contact with the wing.

The A380 design took ramp operations into account and so airfield modifications were kept to a minimum. Nevertheless, the sheer size of the aircraft, most especially its wingspan and more powerful engines, necessitated some changes. For example, although the A380 didn’t require major runway alterations, lighting and signage often needed to be re-sited to provide clearance for the wings and avoid blast damage from the engines.

At London’s Heathrow Airport — the world’s busiest international gateway and an A380 destination for Emirates, Qantas and Singapore Airlines — over £450 million ($743 million) was invested to make it A380-ready.

The main development was Terminal 3’s Pier 6. Two of its four JX (A380 size—some 20 meters wider than JW/747 size) gates operate a multi-aircraft ramp system (MARS), which are able to serve either one A380 or two aircraft up to A320 in size. Passenger holding areas at the gates are also divisible, further improving the operational flexibility of the airport and the efficiency of ground staff.

BAA also extended Terminal 3’s arrivals hall to hold new longer baggage reclaim carousels and widened taxiways to accommodate the A380’s longer wingspan. Additional airfield work includes runway resurfacing, strengthening runway shoulders and an upgrade of the lighting system.

Turnaround times
Singapore Airlines, operator of the first A380 flight, and now using the aircraft on routes to London, Paris, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Tokyo, has significant experience in A380 operations.

Preparations for the behemoth’s arrival began years in advance of the first delivery. From 2001/2, Singapore Airlines was in regular contact with airport authorities, the discussions ranging from technical issues, such as sufficiently proportioned parking bays and runways, to customer service issues such as larger boarding lounges.

“Ground handlers operating our A380s have had to acquire new equipment to handle the aircraft effectively, such as longer baggage carousels and direct upper deck-access catering trucks,” confirms Nicholas Ionides, vice president of public affairs. “Passenger handling procedures, such as boarding sequences and signage to facilitate boarding, have also had to be reviewed in view of the larger capacity of the A380.”

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