S.F. Airport Set for A380 Next Year; LAX to Alter Two Gates

The stark contrast between San Francisco Int'l Airport and LAX has led to speculation that San Francisco will woo A380 flights away from LAX.

Several other U.S. airports are updating their airfields and terminals to serve the A380, which will hold at least 140 more passengers than the Boeing 747. Besides LAX and SFO, they include New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International and airports in Miami and Orlando. LAX expects to spend $65.5 million on A380 upgrades.

At these airports, taxiway and runway intersections need to be widened so the jet's 261-foot wingspan -- the length of three blue whales stretched out head to tail -- doesn't take out airfield lights when a pilot turns.

Tunnels, such as the portion of Sepulveda Boulevard that runs beneath LAX runways, need to be reinforced to handle the aircraft, which could be as heavy as 37 Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses, or 560 tons.

The jet also requires special gates with two loading bridges -- one to reach the upper deck and one for the lower.

After years of discussion about how it should accommodate the A380 at LAX, the city recently started a few improvements, including adding asphalt to airfield intersections and upgrading the two Bradley gates. One gate, where construction began recently, is expected to be completed by midsummer and the other by spring 2007. The modifications are expected to cost $16 million.

At 1 million square feet, the 22-year-old Bradley is less than half the size of San Francisco's international terminal. It is also infamous for its dingy interiors, winding lines and uninspired restaurants. Later this year, airport officials hope to begin a $400-million face-lift.

By contrast, San Francisco's cavernous 5-year-old international terminal has floor-to-ceiling windows, an aviation museum and cherrywood paneling and is easily able to seat 555 passengers as they wait to board. It has wireless Internet access, shower facilities, a direct connection to the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and satellites of Bay Area restaurants.

At LAX, the airport agency is also preparing to rebuild the southernmost runway, a project that officials say is not necessary for the A380 but that could stymie the plane's arrival if it isn't finished by the time the first jet is set to begin service here. The runway is scheduled to be closed from April 25 through Dec. 22.

If the runway, the widest of the four at LAX, is closed when the first A380 arrives, the plane will have to use other runways closer to the terminals, forcing pilots to travel more slowly on the ground and possibly limiting the plane's takeoff weight.

As an incentive to expedite these improvements, McArtor told Los Angeles officials last week that he would bring the first test flight of the A380 in the U.S. to LAX in August, if the airport has finished modifying a gate.

Several carriers have announced that they will fly the A380 into and out of LAX, which is eventually expected to handle more A380 operations than any other U.S. airport. McArtor expects LAX to host 10 A380 flights a day by 2010.

But one carrier, Virgin Atlantic, has postponed its A380 service to LAX until early 2008 in part because it is concerned that the airport won't be ready.

Recently, Villaraigosa has sought to ease such worries, telling officials from Airbus and airlines that preparing to accommodate the A380 is a high priority.

"We're being assured by the appropriate authorities that the airport will be ready on time," said Wally Mariani, a senior executive vice president at Qantas. "There are some concerns in the back of our minds."

Qantas, the largest international carrier of passengers at LAX, hopes to be the first airline to bring the A380 here, in spring 2007.

Airline representatives are also worried about the airport's plans to park the craft at remote gates on LAX's western edge if the two A380 gates at the Bradley terminal are occupied. From there, passengers would have to be bused about 1.5 miles to the terminal. The city is buying new buses with a capacity of about 150 travelers.

Several carriers said that if they had to park their A380s, with their first-class lounges and upper-crust amenities, at those sterile, distant gates after a long overseas flight, they would reconsider bringing the aircraft to LAX.

"That kind of operation would be completely inconsistent with the level of service that we strive to provide our customers," said James Boyd, a spokesman for Singapore Airlines, which has not said where it will land the A380 in the U.S.

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