Jan. 25--Airbus delivered its first A380 in the United States Tuesday, gently pulling back the veil at FedEx Express World Headquarters on a model freighter so gargantuan, the phrase "game changer" immediately stuck.
"This means not just advancing, but leap-frogging," said T. Allan McArtor, chairman, Airbus North America Holdings Inc., and once a senior vice president at FedEx Express before President Ronald Reagan appointed him head of the Federal Aviation Administration in 1987.
"With 150 tons of payload, you're going to have a lot of fun with this airplane."
The A380 has a wingspan of 262 feet. For reference, the 747's wingspan is 213 feet.
With a flight distance of 7,000 nautical miles, the A380 will give FedEx nonstop service between Memphis and Osaka, Japan, for instance, or Memphis and Singapore, making the company the first to "connect the commercial nodes of the world with a huge volume of goods," McArtor said.
For a company infinitely interested in shaving minutes, the A380 is a bonanza, zapping hours off transcontinental flights, "and allowing us to better serve our customers around the world," said David Bronczek, FedEx Express president and chief executive.
"We'll be able to go direct from Paris to Asia, which we can't do now."
The plane will carry freight on three levels, nearly doubling the capacity of the MD11, now the largest plane in the FedEx fleet.
It will allow FedEx to serve China with limited routes, while also saving the company fuel and time.
FedEx, the first freight customer for the A380 in the world -- has 10 "firm orders" for the plane and an option on 10 more. Six are scheduled to arrive in 2009, followed by three in 2010 and one in 2011.
FedEx is building a $150 million heavy maintenance hangar for the A380 at the airport.
At Memphis International Airport, it will cost $20 million to widen the shoulders on both the runways and taxiways to accommodate the A380, said Robert Beesley, director of development.
"We'll be adding outside shoulders to the center runway and east runway, adding 30 feet on each side," he said.
The airport will make similar improvements to the taxiways, beginning this year, for "erosion control," Beesley said.
Because of the A380's enormous wingspan, its engines hang over the runways and taxiways, increasing the possibility of dirt and rocks being blown back on the runway.
FedEx began buying Airbus planes when it introduced the A300 family in its fleet. Today it owns 104 Airbus planes.
The start was critical, McArtor said, because it put FedEx in close contact with Airbus when it was time to design the A380.
"We designed the A380 with substantial input from Fred Smith and his team," he said. "It comes just in time for the just-in-time boys. That's FedEx."
FedEx has seen its share of "game-changing" technology, including meteoric rises when it went from flying Falcons to the 727, and then when it went from narrow-body planes to wide.
In retrospect, both were incremental, McArtor said, "because they didn't improve range."
The A380 has other cities, including Indianapolis, licking its chops in anticipation that FedEx will expand its footprint in other cities.
Indianapolis, which has capacity to handle the A380 at its airport, says it is negotiating with FedEx for expanded services.
FedEx would not comment, except to say that it has not signed any expansion contracts with Indianapolis nor has it assigned the routes the A380 will fly.
The metal pieces for the FedEx orders were cut last spring in Europe, McArtor said.
The final product will be "glued together" in Toulouse, France.
Nearly half of the components in the A380 are purchased in the United States, including the wing skins, which are manufactured at Vought Aircraft Industries in Nashville.
"Airbus has spent $2.5 billion in Tennessee since 1990 on airplanes," McArtor said. "We're known for our innovative, exacting requirements. Our suppliers feel very proud to work for us."
Airbus has 159 firm orders for the A380, including 27 freighters. UPS confirmed in December that it is purchasing 10 A380s.
"We didn't suspect UPS would be sitting on the sidelines too long," Bronczek said. "But we're going to have the lead on them, of course."