The Airbus A380

The publicity machine, an enterprise that just about matches the size of the aircraft itself, has covered just about every thing you will need to know about the Airbus A380. The 16 customers, who have signed up with 159 firm orders, at the time of writing, will be using at last count a total of about 60 airports on a scheduled basis.

Each of these airports has a long and expensive list of special requirements specific to handling an aircraft of this size on a regular basis. Everyone knew it was happening, everyone has had the statistics in front of them but not everyone has made the investment in infrastructure, handling facilities and training—yet. When you apply the measuring tape to the airport plans, a wingspan of 79.8 m [261 ft 8 in] will probably hang over the edges of most runways and taxiways creating a FOD danger to the outside engines from grass or sand.

Move the template to the terminal and at best it will be a tight squeeze if, as is very likely, the terminal building has been designed to accommodate other wide bodied aircraft. The length at 73 m [239 ft 3 in] is less of a problem, but height at 24.1 m [79 ft 7 in] and weight will cause some serious calculations.

These are all issues that have been taking up every waking hour of teams of people across the world for the past couple of years. In the last few months it has come down to a reality check for a handful of airports, carriers and Airbus as the aircraft was rolled out and airport compatibility tests began.

Frankfurt was the first of these tests. On October 29th of 2005 an expectant crowd gathered to see the A380 touch down, taxi in and hitch to a terminal.

Lufthansa will be the second largest A380 customer and Dr. Joachin Schneider has been appointed early in the time line as Vice President with the specific role of handling the A380 entry into service for the carrier. Fraport’s investment up to this point had been significant, the budget was $193.7 million. The team also included LSG Sky Chefs and Lufthansa Technik. Frankfurt will be handling at least 10 arrivals a day by 2010 and is building a dedicated A380 maintenance hanger, so the focus on Frankfurt is intense. At the end of the day, all reports were positive. The planning had paid off with German precision. Prototypes of a more powerful tug and a new design in catering vehicle that is designed to reach the 2 level loading position were put through their paces.

Airbus undertook a major Asia Pacific tour in November 2005 and made house calls on their other big-ticket customers Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Malaysian. The trip was delayed slightly and the itinerary changed to Singapore, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and back via Kuala Lumpur and Dubai hub for Emirates, the largest customer.

Airport compatibility testing was undertaken only in Singapore, Melbourne and Dubai; the other stop-overs were publicity calls only. Prototype F-WWOW certainly had the wow factor all along the way. Shell Aviation Singapore had the first real chance to test the refueling operations. The A380 incidentally carries 310,000 liters [81,890 gallons]. Shell Aviation’s Walter Seah reports that all went according to plan. The underwing refueling ports are 5.9 metres from the ground, well beyond the reach of normal hydrant dispensers.

Two new scissors platform dispensers were used on the test. Shell Aviation at Changi had started a redesign program back in 2003 and the equipment is now being progressively introduced. They deployed not only the added height available but also gave the fuel rate gauge a work out at close to a combined 6,000 liters per minute. Just as a comparison, a B737 will be refueled by one dispenser at about 1,000 liters a minute.

Having made the quantum leap from theory to the practical, ground support crews are getting a handle on just how much extra effort will be involved in an A380 turn around. All those 555 passengers to process, luggage and freight, catering and cleaning the list goes on and on.

From Singapore the A380 headed for Australia. Qantas was celebrating their 85th anniversary and the aircraft was the center of the party plan with fly-overs and extensive media coverage.

But it was in Melbourne that the sleeves were rolled up and some serious testing got under way. The airport had completed a $50 million upgrade and widening of the main north/south runway by 15 meters. It spent another $220 million on two stand-off bays and terminal extensions with duel level aerobridges on two gates. Melbourne was ready when the aircraft parked at Gate 9 as scheduled on the 15th of November. An estimated 35,000 locals visited the airport for a look during its two-day stop-over.

Qantas had a finely tuned test schedule with a team of senior engineers and operations people making copious notes and timings. A large and confidential report has been completed by all accounts. Melbourne Airport senior staff and A380 project leader, Sarah Renner, breathed a huge sigh of relief as the monstrous silhouette lifted off into the cloudless sky.

Two years of hard work paid off. With five aircraft now built and flying, the Airbus development program is in full swing.

Airbus sees their market as not only the airlines and lease companies who will buy this aircraft but also the public who will buy the seats provided. The concept of an aircraft carrying that many people must be carefully promoted and TV specials and print supplements on the design, manufacture and testing have all been ready for launch as the first aircraft were rolled out for flight. If you were not excited and ready to be amazed you probably work for Boeing.

The A380 has been a hot topic in the industry for years and provides a product differential between the two largest manufacturers. It has polarized the aviation buffs throughout the industry. For the first time since the B747 came into service, airports and ground handling facilities and service providers have had to make changes, modify designs and plan to accommodate a new aircraft type.

The investment has been and will continue to be enormous for all concerned, so the rewards had better be spectacular. Time will tell, but in the interim there is work to be done on the ground and the A380 will keep a lot of people who read this magazine busy, not as busy as you would be if you were in Toulouse perhaps but it will be on the agenda for a couple more years.