Too Much Plane for Sea-Tac

When Airbus' megaliner, the A380, finally begins commercial service this fall, expect destinations such as Singapore, Los Angeles, Sydney, New York, London and Dubai to be on its schedule.

But don't count on seeing the double-deck, 555-passenger jumbo landing regularly in Seattle anytime soon.

It's not that the Airbus and its airline customers want to avoid the home of Boeing's commercial airplane division. It's that Sea-Tac Airport and its market don't fit well with the airliner's physical and demographic needs.

"We've done some fairly thorough analysis of the A380 issue, and we don't think that Sea-Tac will be handling an A380 anytime soon," said Mark Reis, the airport's director.

Though Sea-Tac is one of the nation's busier airports, it isn't the kind of centrally located hub that the A380 was built to serve.

"The A380 was built to serve such markets as Tokyo to New York," said Reis. "Sea-Tac just isn't that kind of market."

The Airbus plane will carry about 555 passengers in a three-class configuration. It could carry as many as 800 in an all-coach design. In contrast, the Boeing 747-400 carries about 420 and its successor, the 747-8, will carry 465.

It doesn't make financial sense for an airline to bring a large aircraft such as the A380 to Sea-Tac where there might not be enough passengers to fill it.

The ideal use for such aircraft is carrying passengers between two international hub airports, particularly hub airports with limited capacity to handle additional aircraft operations such as London's Heathrow Airport. At those airports, passengers are gathered or dispersed to smaller cities.

In this country, the biggest hubs - New York's JFK, Los Angeles International, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago's O'Hare, Atlanta's Hartsfeld, Detroit Metropolitan and a few others - serve that function.

At smaller major airports such as Sea-Tac, smaller. long-range jetliners such as the Boeing 777 and 767 and the Airbus A330 and A340, fit the needs better, said Reis. And with the advent of Boeing's new 787, more smaller cities will be linked directly nonstop instead of through hubs.

The trend is to use smaller aircraft for international flights. Boeing's 747s have been displaced by 777s, 767s, A330s and A340s. Only a few 747s now visit Sea-Tac daily.

Some examples: Scandinavian Airlines now uses an A340 to link Seattle to Copenhagen. Air France's new flight to Paris from Sea-Tac uses an A330, and British Airways' second daily flight to London is via a 777.

Reis noted that relatively few A380s have been ordered, about 150, and only two of the airlines serving Sea-Tac, Korean and Air France, are among Airbus A380 customers.

Besides the lack of a financial justification for employing an A380 on a Sea-Tac route, the plane's sheer size would cause problems at the airport hemmed in by homes and commercial development.

"We could handle an A380 if one had to divert here in an emergency," said Reis, "but we'd have problems handing the plane as a regular visitor."

The Airbus has been classified as a Group 6 aircraft by international certification bodies because of its size. The 747 is in Group 5.

Airbus has taken care to minimize the effect on airport infrastructure but the plane's dimensions still create issues for airports such as Sea-Tac.

The plane's landing gear is designed to spread its more than one-million-pound weight to more wheels than the 747, thus reducing the weight loading per square foot on the runway.

But the plane's wingspan is 37 feet greater than that of Boeing's newest 747, the 747-8. That wider wingspan means the A380's outboard engines hang from the wings just beyond the edge of a 150-foot-wide runway. Most runways including those at Sea-Tac are 150 feet wide. Some airports such as San Francisco have 200-feet-wide runways.

While the A380 can be landed or can take off from a 150-foot-wide runway, the chance of the outboard engines ingesting foreign objects from the unpaved runway edge is greater.

The proximity of taxiways and runways to each other at Sea-Tac would require the airport to shut down most taxiways and its second runway when the A380s was taxiing, landing or taking off, said Reis.

Though some airports have modified a gate or two to handle the A380s width, Sea-Tac has not. If an A380 regularly used a Sea-Tac gate, the airport would have to close an adjacent gate to accommodate the plane's wingspan.

Airbus estimates the average airport will spend about $100 million to modify its physical plant to handle the A380. For some airports such as Los Angeles, the cost might be worth it. LAX is likely to handle multiple A380s each day because several of its major airlines including Qantas, Singapore, Korean, Air France, Lufthansa and others have order A380s and are likely to use them on LAX flights.

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John Gillie: 253-597-8663

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