Memphis Airport Readies for Big New Resident: Airbus 380

The Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority is looking for ways to cut costs on airfield upgrades needed to accommodate the giant A380 freighter scheduled to fly out of Memphis starting in 2009.

APAC-Tennessee, lone bidder on a project to extend shoulders on portions of three taxiways and move the perimeter lighting, bid the job at $12.4 million.

The figure is more then the authority budgeted, due to inflation and rising construction costs, said authority president and chief executive Larry Cox.

"The FAA allows us to negotiate if there is only one bidder," he said. "We'll go to work to see if we can get the cost down."

Overall, the authority expects to spend $15 million-$20 million by 2008 to upgrade infrastructure for the giant freighter that FedEx Corp. is buying from Airbus.

J.F. Kennedy Airport in New York plans to spend $170 million to $180 million -- more than any other U.S. airport -- on upgrades, said Dick Marchi, senior policy adviser at Airports Council International-North America.

"The airports that are the furthest ahead are those that will see A380 passenger service first," he said, including Kennedy, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"But among the cargo airports -- Memphis, Anchorage, Louisville, Ontario and Indianapolis -- Memphis is the furthest ahead in improvements," Marchi said. "Memphis knew before UPS airports that FedEx was buying the plane."

Both FedEx and UPS have firm orders for 10 of the planes. FedEx is scheduled to receive two in 2009; four in 2010; three in 2011; and one 2012.

For competitive reasons -- cities, including Orlando -- are so eager to get the A380s, they are making the upgrades even though they don't have anyone planning to fly the planes there, Marchi said.

"It's seen as mark of distinction to have the A380," Marchi said.

The freighter version FedEx is purchasing has a payload of 150 tons, nearly twice the capacity of the MD-11, now the largest plane in its FedEx fleet.

The A380's wingspan is 262 feet, 49 feet wider than the 747. With a flight distance of 7,000 nautical miles, it will give FedEx nonstop service between Memphis and Osaka, Japan, for instance, or Memphis and Singapore.

Although Airbus has been in financial and political disarray since mid-June when it announced the second delay on the A380, the disruption has little to do with the plane itself, Marchi said.

"These airports have been given pretty clear assurances from the carriers that the airplane is coming," he said. "They have to be ready."

The airport authority hopes to begin widening portions of taxiways Alpha, Bravo and Yankee in August, extending them from 145 feet to "a minimum of 180 feet, shoulder to shoulder," said Robert Beesley, airport authority head of development.

The lighting will have to be moved out because there is a possibility that jet blasts from the inboard engines would knock the fixtures out.

"We don't think that is an issue," said Beesley. "But in the winter, we will have to push the snow and ice further off the center line, which will make getting around those lights an issue."

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