Five Years and Counting

Cover Story

Five Years and Counting

By Richard Rowe

March 2001

Now that Airbus has announced a 2006 service entry date for its new A380 aircraft, the ground support world has a definite timetable in which to prepare, writes Richard Rowe.

The most exciting new development in aviation in 30 years was sealed last December when those perennial show stealers, Virgin Atlantic, committed to buying the new Airbus A380. Virgin’s decision to become the sixth launch customer of the new "super-jumbo" ensured that Airbus had secured the all-important 50 orders to begin production of the aircraft.

The countdown to the arrival of a three-deck passenger aircraft capable of carrying 555 passengers actually began some time ago. Not since the arrival of the Boeing 747 in the late 1960s has the industry been faced with such a quantum leap forward in air travel, and not since the arrival of that aircraft has the industry rolled up its collective sleeves in preparation.

Airbus has been careful to develop an aircraft that is attractive to airlines in the air and poses minimum problems on the ground. While Boeing dropped out of the race to build a triple deck aircraft citing lack of market demand and opted instead for the B747X family (due in 2005, but with no takers as yet), Airbus was convinced of the need for such an aircraft.

The A380 is unlikely to dominate the skies like B-747s, but looks set to become a regular feature on the world’s busiest routes, such as Los Angeles to Hong Kong and London to New York City.

Airbus knew that for the A380 to fly, its introduction had to be as seamless as possible. The company clicked into marketing overdrive, touting the A380 as the cost-effective solution to solving growing traffic congestion at major hubs.

On offer, says Airbus, is an environmentally friendly aircraft with reduced noise levels and 20 percent lower fuel burn. Compared with its closest rival from Boeing, Airbus also claims 17 percent lower cash operating costs for the passenger version and 30 percent lower operating costs per ton transported on long distances for the freighter version.

Industry partnership has been a feature of the aircraft’s development. "I can cite many cases where we adapted the design according to airlines’ feedback during our many working sessions," explains Philippe Jarry, Vice President, Market Development, Large Aircraft Division.

"Examples include guidance from Air France, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and Emirates that led us to change the form of the upper deck to better meet their requirements," he says. "Another, was advice that resulted in an increase in cargo volume based on the airlines’ operational needs."

Three of these airlines--Air France, Singapore Airlines, and Qantas--have since become launch customers, joined by Emirates, Virgin, International Lease Finance Corporation and, most recently, FedEx Express for the first freighter version of the aircraft.

Keen to avoid the lack of ground preparations that Airbus believes marred the entry into service of the B747, Airbus has long operated a dedicated airport and infrastructure department within its A380 engineering team.

"We started to talk with the industry in 1995," Yves Lemoigne, Ground Operations Manager, Airbus told GSE Today. "This included the various heads of planning at airports and the GSE industry."

Airbus claims that the A380 requires no new infrastructure or major alterations to airports and has worked closely with 60 or so major airports around the world. The aircraft fits into an 80 x 80 meter box to allow gate parking--dimensions that the Airports Council International (ACI) Technical and Safety Committee suggested as a size that would keep the cost of adapting existing infrastructure reasonable.

Airbus also stuck to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) requirements for a new category of aircraft (Code F) created for the next generation of super jumbos with wingspans from 65 to 80 meters.

Despite such efforts, however, there are few airports capable of supporting the aircraft with little or no alternations to present infrastructure (Hong Kong, the new Inchon Airport in Korea and London Stansted are notable exceptions).

Clearly, major hubs wanting to remain competitive will have to dig deep (see box story) to fund modifications to stands, taxiways, and fixed terminal infrastructure (such as passenger loading bridges and baggage handling systems.

Fortunately, fewer changes than people might think are required on the ramp. Airbus also highlights commonality of GSE where possible--also a major selling point for Boeing with its 747X family--and the industry does not expect the aircraft to herald a revolution in GSE requirements.

However, some changes are required to accommodate a maximum takeoff weight of nearly 600 tons (1.5 million pounds), and greater deck heights (up to 8.5 meters or 335 inches). Although launch date is five years off--and exact specifications for the A380 have yet to be published--the time is now for GSE manufacturers to start planning.

As Lemoigne explains, Airbus has essentially developed the passenger version of the A380 to be handled with existing GSE. It can be handled almost like a B-747 since both passenger decks on the A380 can be boarded through the main deck and passengers (as well as catering) can reach the upper deck using stairs.

Clearly, it would be more efficient to serve the upper deck of the aircraft directly, and the debate began some time ago about how best to load passengers, catering, and cargo to different decks.

According to Lemoigne, Airbus is currently looking at upper deck airbridge designs from manufacturers such as TEAM, FMT, Norgate, and Thyssen Henschel.

"If an airport does not provide facilities for double deck boarding such as double deck gates, or at least jetways that can reach the upper deck, then the ground handling community must look into the acquisition of new and special equipment to speed up the turnaround process," believes Thomas Schubert, General Manager, Quality Systems at GlobeGround.

Lufthansa, the parent and a customer of GlobeGround’s, has not committed to this or any other larger aircraft in the future, but the ground handler still needs to look carefully at handling procedures for the A380 for when serving other customers around the world.

"For an A380 push out, a new towbarless tow tractor will be necessary. If A380s are not handled at the terminal building, larger apron buses, wider stairs or stairs that reach the upper deck, and larger capacity toilet/water trucks will certainly help in a quick turnaround process," says Schubert. "For unloading/loading of an A380 Freighter, new upper deck loading equipment is mandatory.

"We will need to calculate the costs for the acquisition of this [additional] equipment very carefully."

In February, Lemoigne hosted a working group in Toulouse at which launch airline customers explored design possibilities for serving the upper deck of the aircraft, including an internal lift system and a new type of high lift truck to service the upper deck. "We have now agreed on catering equipment needs with the airlines and have put out a request for proposal," explains Lemoigne. "Airlines have asked for proposals to be sent to specific suppliers." Proposals have been requested for March/April, and Lemoigne believes that the working group will reconvene in November.

The recurrent theme when Lemoigne talks of GSE is one of conventional equipment will do the job, but new equipment is better. He believes that conventional tractors could handle the A380, but feels that as the industry continues to move more towards towbarless models, changes will be needed to accommodate maximum nose wheel widths of 1.73 meters (67 inches).

While manufacturers generally are none too keen to share their development plans at this stage, it can be safely said that engineering teams are working overtime. TLD, for one, is working with Airbus on a towbarless tractor that can cope with such dimensions. Douglas is working on a wider version of its TBL-400 towbarless tractor, while others such as Goldhofer are also in the frame.

In addition to tow tractors, Antoine Maguin, Chief Executive Officer, TLD USA, points to several other R&D priorities for the company: cargo loaders for the upper level of the freighter version, catering trucks, and emergency stairs at the rear of aircraft.

"It will all be specific equipment," says Maguin. "All other equipment can handle it [A380] either slightly larger or by using more than one." He questions Lemoigne’s contention that a large conventional tractor could push back a fully loaded A380. "Our Tracma 500 could if the weather was good, but pushback will be a big issue, particularly in poor weather."

Work on A380 equipment has seen design input come from TLD’s various engineering departments around the world. Maguin is confident--after all, it was TLD that supplied the largest loaders ever designed to serve the Airbus Beluga in Toulouse. The 12 special cargo loaders, manufactured between 1994 and 1996, weigh in at 136 metric tonnes, eight meters in height, and 35 meters in length.

"Airbus gave us only one year to design and manufacture the prototype unit," says Maguin. No wonder he does not fear future GSE challenges.

The good news, of course, is that 2006 is still some time away, and designing a piece of GSE takes a lot less time than designing a whole aircraft. Manufacturers have five years--perhaps enough time for electric GSE to accommodate the A380--and seven in the case of dedicated cargo loaders for the upper deck of the freighter version.

This is certainly the feeling at FedEx Express. "We are not scheduled to take delivery on the first of the A380 aircraft until 2008. At that time, we expect to be able to load and unload the aircraft in roughly the same time, with approximately the same number of employees that are required to handle an equivalent amount of cargo on our MD-11 aircraft," said a company spokesperson.

Ground service providers join GSE manufacturers and airlines in preparation. "As soon as Airbus announced the formal go-ahead for the A380 in December last year, we set up a task force to study and prepare for the new requirements in handling this new generation aircraft," said a spokesperson from Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS), sister company of launch airline, Singapore Airlines.

The task force, which comprises representatives from all of the company’s ground operation areas, will leave no stone unturned. Analysis will focus on GSE requirements, handling/service time and the impact on present service standards, personnel requirements and changes in team structure, ramp space required, and a thorough review of work processes.

In the build up to the aircraft’s debut in 2006, "SATS will spare no efforts in preparing for the coming of the A380," says the spokesperson. "We will work closely with Airbus, the Airport Authority, and our airline clients and be fully geared for the handling of A380, in terms of staffing, infrastructure, and equipment requirements.

"When the A380 commences operations, SATS will continually review the handling of the A380 to further improve service standards. We will also be constantly on the lookout for A380 friendly equipment that will assist our staff in ground operations."

Dnata, the Dubai-based ground handler (and sister of another launch airline, Emirates) appears equally on top of the situation. "I expect Emirates to be the prime operator of the A380 through Dubai," says Tom Lewis, Senior General Manager, Dnata Airport Operations, newly arrived from Servisair. "I do not expect vast costs to be associated with this aircraft as most ground handling equipment available and in use on the airport will probably be compatible with A380’s requirements."

Dale Griffith, recently appointed Director Emirates Airport Services, agrees. "The impact will be less than that experienced in the late 1960s with the B-747 taking over from the B-707 and DC-8. That movement went from 200 to 400 passengers and from a narrow to a widebody aircraft--huge changes in passengers and cargo numbers and in-aircraft systems, plus a much larger standing and taxiing footprint. “ This change is moderate by comparison. We will work with systems providers, the regulatory agencies, and our Department of Civil Aviation to ensure we have the ground equipment and other resources to handle three levels of business off the aircraft compared to the two levels of today."

Like SATS, Dnata has working groups formed both internally and externally to analyze and fine tune handling requirements. "When identified, those specifications will be shared with our terminal consultant and group equipment suppliers," says Lewis.

"Given that we will have worked with our partners in preparing ourselves, introduction will be smooth," believes Griffith. "I don't see a huge difference from today's B777-200 at 434 seats or B747 at over 400 seats. The A380 will have an additional 150-200 passengers and with possibly an upper level loading bridge boarding/de-boarding should be as quick as today."

Emirates itself is working closely with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and the airport on the development of its own terminal and satellite which should be able to handle comfortably the A380.

"That facility will be available by the delivery date of the first aircraft," confirms Griffith. "Modifications to the existing terminal will be made on certain parking stands to handle the A380 of other airlines."

Dnata is currently also examining possibilities for the "high speed safety conscious loaders that will be required," as well as examining passenger loading bridges capable of covering two levels of passenger processing will be required.

In Europe, GlobeGround is in close touch with the German arm of Airbus Industries, EADS. "We have had meetings to discuss Airbus' ideas on ground handling, and we made comments with regard to what a ground handling company would like to see on the new A380," says Thomas Schubert.

"Once the delivery date comes nearer and ground handling manuals are available, we will begin with in-house familiarization and training for staff at those locations that are likely to handle the A380."

Initially, Schubert believes that only the world’s major airports will feel the impact of the new aircraft, although this will spread to other larger airports in time. "Apart from the home bases of the carriers using the A380, which will mostly self-handle, I see an increasing number of handling events that will need to be managed through ground handling companies at more and more hubs."

GlobeGround has made its feelings clear on the subject of GSE commonality. "During the meetings with Airbus--and we trust the GSE manufacturers are thinking in the same direction--we pointed out that all new A380-equipment must be useable on smaller widebodies such as A300/310/330/340 and B747/767/777 in order not to have ‘white elephants; in the GSE fleet," says Schubert.

"The sourcing of this equipment will be done through our partners that are specialized in defining specifications on GSE."

While Dale Griffith at Emirates believes that "any ground support equipment developed for the A380 will have commonality for the current range of aircraft so incrementally the financial hit should be modest," Schubert feels that the costs could impact small, local handling companies that much harder.

"I see advantages for financially powerful ground handling networks," he says. "Being able to invest in special A380 equipment, thus being ready to turn around an A380 as quickly as possible, could be a clear advantage over the competition."

.But what about actual turnaround time for this behemoth? According to Airbus statistics, a Boeing 747-400 can be turned around on the ground in 83 minutes. Using the same assumptions, Lemoigne claims a turnaround time of 88 minutes for the A380. This time, says Lemoigne, could be reduced further (to 75 minutes) if dedicated upper deck loading is utilized, or as low as 66 minutes if less than a full load of fuel is required at turnaround.

"Our objective will be to keep timings similar to today's. Given the right amount of automation, trained staff, and terminal and ground support equipment that should be achievable," says Griffith.

GlobeGround remains slightly more cautious. "We haven’t started our own calculations yet," explains Schubert. "It appears to be a bit premature since we do not know any airline relevant specifications such as container/pallet positions in the bellies or seating versions in the cabin.

"However, we have our doubts with both the A380 and the B-747 calculation. The turnaround time calculations for both aircraft seem somewhat theoretical with a focus on commercial aspects rather than day-to-day airport operations.

"Shortly before the aircraft is in service, we will sit down locally with each of our customers using the A380 to one of the destinations that we serve. Having identified the critical path, we will work out those tasks and duties that have to be accomplished at certain times in order to achieve a turnaround time that is as short as possible," he adds.

Box story

A380: The Airport View

Like others, BAA, the operator of London Heathrow and six other U.K. airports, has worked closely with Airbus and the airline community on planning for the A380. Ever mindful of community relations, this has been not only from an operational standpoint, but also in terms of reducing noise and emissions.

Well aware of its own constraints at Heathrow, BAA has long maintained that aircraft larger than those in operation today are inevitable given the runway capacity issues at many of the world’s major airports. Heathrow’s plans envisage accommodating large numbers of A380s, which will require alterations to the airport’s existing airfield and terminal infrastructure.

It is crucial for Heathrow that Terminal 5 is up and running, designed as it is to handle super jumbos by providing the necessary aircraft stand and terminal layout for them.

With a wingspan of around 80 meters and carrying up to 650 passengers (in later configurations), BAA is resigned to the fact that the new aircraft poses logistical and technical challenges for Heathrow.

"ICAO has issued a Directive on the clearances required for 80-meter wingspan aircraft and this will require a degree of widening and realignment of taxiways and aprons to be undertaken," said a BAA spokesperson. "BAA is working hard with other British and European airports to counteract the impact of these clearances and will be challenging the ICAO methodology which determines them, in order to minimize the impact on airport infrastructure."

From a terminal point of view, BAA expects Terminal 3 to be the most likely of Heathrow’s terminals to receive the new aircraft in addition to Terminal 5 (which will be used by British Airways and Pacific Rim carriers). With the potential arrival of so many passengers at a time, this will place increased pressure on arriving facilities such as Immigration and baggage reclaim—all issues being addressed by BAA.

"The number of stands across the whole airport could be reduced as existing stands are reconfigured and others are lost altogether," conceded the spokesperson. "However, the number of stands which need to be available will be largely determined by the level of demand from airlines, and BAA has planned for sufficient stands of this size to meet predicted demand."

While some airports plan to provide air bridges on a double deck basis, this is not considered to be practical at certain terminals at Heathrow and would create "significant logistical problems over segregating inbound and outbound passengers." BAA says that it is more likely to favor providing two boarding bridges for each aircraft.