Airbus A380's Puts Pressure on Miami

The Airbus A380, to some, is a houseguest who is too big for the bed, too wide for the hallway and too heavy for the floors. Or, in this case, an airplane that's too big, wide and heavy for Miami International Airport.

But the double-decker passenger jet is coming anyway, forcing airports like MIA to make elaborate and costly preparations to accommodate the record-setting aircraft.

Just how giant is this jet? Its wingspan is 50 feet longer than the current world's largest plane, the Boeing 747. It carries 555 passengers, though it could hold more than 800. It weighs 1.2 million pounds, 30 percent more than the 747.

Such size has raised a host of issues. The biggest: the size of the runway the A380 needs to land and takeoff safely.

The Federal Aviation Administration has tentatively said the plane needs a 200-foot-wide runway. Because of its large wingspan, officials worry the plane's outside engines may kick up debris outside the runway's edges that's sucked up by its or another plane's engine. They also fear the plane is so wide it could quickly veer off course during takeoffs and landings.

But the majority of U.S. airport runways are 150 feet. MIA only has one 200-foot-wide runway -- on the opposite side of the airfield from where the A380 will park, at the unfinished South Terminal.

For arrivals to the east, then, the A380 will be forced to take a long, circuitous route to reach its gate.

At one point, MIA executives thought the massive plane would have to cross the airport's diagonal runway twice to avoid crossing a mid-field tunnel, but the aviation department now believes the tunnel can handle the weight -- so long as the A380 keeps moving and doesn't stop.


The plane's European manufacturer calls a 200-foot-wide requirement nonsense.

"It handles better [than most other jets] because it was designed to do so," said Dan Cohen-Nir, a program director at Airbus North America. "The airlines had asked us to design a plane that could operate on existing runways. We have done about 200 takeoffs [in testing], and the vast majority were on 150-foot runways."

Regardless of runway, air traffic controllers worry the A380 will cause gridlock in the air and on the ground. The aircraft is so large, it requires controllers to maintain more distance between it and other planes -- 600 feet on the ground and 10 miles in the air. The Boeing 747 requires a distance of 400 feet from other planes on the ground and six miles in the air.

"It's going to really tie up the airfield," said Jim Marinitti, president of the local union of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association at MIA.


MIA plans to spend $33 million on airfield improvements, such as moving and widening some taxiways and relocating lighting. The airport already built bigger gates in the South Terminal and specially-designed baggage and Customs areas to handle the crush of 555 passengers at once.

The airport still has more than a year to prepare for the giant jet. Three airlines -- Lufthansa, Air France and Virgin Atlantic -- have expressed interest in flying the A380 to MIA in late 2007 or 2008. (There are no current plans for the A380 to fly to Fort LauderdaleHollywood International Airport).

But MIA executives are watching closely as Airbus, the European manufacturer, and the FAA debate the severity of the plane's impact.

They're hoping the FAA allows the A380 to use 150-foot-wide runways, so long as it has paved shoulders to minimize flying debris. That would open up runway 9R-27L at MIA, which is closest to the A380 gates. That runway has shoulders, though they would likely have to be strengthened.


"If it can't operate on 150-foot runways, it kind of defeats the purpose of the airplane," said Sunil Harman, director of MIA's planning division.

The FAA is expected to decide the issue when it certifies the plane later this year.

Outside the United States, the A380 is expected to operate under less strict standards, including the narrower runway. Some aviation industry insiders have speculated the FAA is protecting Airbus's bitter rival, Chicago-based Boeing.

Dick Marchi, senior advisor to the Airports Council North America, said Congress has repeatedly asked for studies on how much American airports are spending to accommodate the A380 -- requests he believes are in part politically motivated.

But he doesn't believe the FAA is unfairly targeting the plane.

"There has been talk about that, but I don't think it's true," Marchi said.

He pointed to Boeing's plans to counter the A380 with the planned 747-8, whose wingspan will be nearly as long as the A380's.

That could subject the plane to the same requirements at the A380.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald.

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