The Airbus A380 is likely to have a major impact on aviation when it takes to the skies in late 2006 even though airlines, airports and manufacturers are working hard to ensure it affects them as little as possible
The problem of airport congestion coupled with growing air traffic led Airbus to design the A380, a giant double-decker aircraft capable of transporting up to 600 passengers over 15,000km.
In the sky, the A380 will benefit from the latest technologies and concepts. Airline clients including Emirates, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines will revel in lower seat-mile costs, the environment will be soothed by reduced noise and emission levels compared to the largest aircraft flying today and passengers will have the opportunity to enjoy new levels of comfort and space.
On the ground, however, the behemoth may be a little less graceful. Both the passenger and cargo versions will require at least one specialized piece of ground support equipment and airports will have to adapt airfield and terminal operations to cater to the size of the aircraft and sheer number of passengers.
However, Airbus promotes the A380 as the minimum change answer to air traffic growth. Thomas Burger, senior marketing analyst, Airbus A380 Program, believes the manufacturer has done everything possible to reduce the number of alterations required to handle the aircraft.
"We've been working with bodies such as ICAO and ACI (Airports Council International) since 1994 on airport and ground support compatibility," he says. "We agreed the aircraft needed to fit in the crucial 80m x 80m box, which is ICAO Code F, so it wouldn't disrupt normal operations to any great degree."
Many features of the A380 are comparable to today's large widebody aircraft, most notably the Boeing 747. From the main deck down the aircraft is just a normal widebody. The main and upper deck door sill heights are the same, as are the ground connection points such as power, refuelling and water. Even the landing gear is comparable. "And it's important to note most of the servicing is done from the main deck down," remarks Burger.
However, in order to keep turnaround times down to the 90-minute mark a crucial piece of equipment is needed for the upper deck. The A380 needs a new catering truck design, one that will elevate and stretch to serve the upper deck door one, situated above the wing.
Two prototype trucks are currently being tested; initial positioning tests started in November 2003. Airbus has a full 1:1 scale mock-up of a 20m section of fuselage complete with the U1R door kinematics at its Toulouse headquarters to assist with the plethora of trials. There have been five full working group meetings, including participants such as Malaysian Airlines, British Airports Authority (BAA), LSG and Gate Gourmet, since February 2001. It is thought serial production will need to begin in late 2004.
Technically, although a challenge, most issues are readily resolved. Burger notes a double-scissor movement will most likely be used. However, the necessary design, and in particular the eight meter-plus height the truck needs to attain, does cause some safety problems. Operators will need to be properly protected with a clear view of truck operations and the ramp and there is also the prospect of moving food trolleys over the avionic-laden wing.
Although specialized, Burger notes Airbus has been insisting the truck meets two important criteria. First, it must fit in with the usual ramp layout so as not to disrupt normal servicing and second it has to be able to serve normal widebody aircraft, thereby diluting its cost for ground handling operations.
"It will have a limited footprint so it will work in a normal ramp layout," says Burger. "In fact, the ramp layout will be the same as for the 747 apart from a need for four catering trucks instead of the usual three. It also needs to be adaptable to other widebody aircraft so it isn't such a big expenditure."
This shouldn't be too difficult to achieve. Lufthansa, for example, already uses an eight meter-high seat change vehicle to serve the upper deck of a 747, which is the same height as the A380 upper deck. Nine meter capable maintenance vehicles, which have translating platforms, are also in use today.
The truck will be crucial to turnaround times. Because the A380 will feature a more balanced and efficient main deck door usage, passenger boarding shouldn't be the determining factor in turnaround time, putting the pressure on efficient servicing. And servicing the upper deck in this way will also give airlines a greater flexibility in cabin layout, allowing them to differentiate their product.
Another new piece of equipment will be needed for the cargo version of the aircraft. An upper deck or "super" loader will be needed for safe and efficient loading and unloading. Like the new catering truck, the concern is not so much whether the functional specifications can be met but whether they can be met safely and cost-effectively.
To date only three customers exist for the A380F: Emirates, FedEx and ILFC. However, its 150-ton payload, 30 percent larger than its nearest competitor, is sure to generate interest.
Marco Sterk, manager, aircraft development and acquisition, FedEx Express concurs: "The A380 is perfect for the FedEx global network. The A380's unique capacity, range and efficiency will make it ideally suited for the anticipated needs of the FedEx global network later this decade. The A380 will increase the company's operational efficiencies as the aircraft operates on long-range routes from multiple FedEx hubs in Europe and Asia to its North America hubs. FedEx will receive three of the new jets in 2008, three in 2009, three in 2010 and one in 2011."
FedEx is naturally taking a keen interest in the new piece of equipment and has been involved in the working group along with other participants such as TLD, Air Marrel and IATA.
Reports Sterk: "FedEx Express is currently evaluating several preliminary designs of the upper deck capable loader. The A380 loader would also be capable for use as a regular widebody main deck loader on our MD-11, MD-10 and A300 fleet. Request For Proposals have been sent to all major GSE suppliers.
"Before these new upper deck capable loaders will be used on the FedEx Express A380s in 2008, FedEx will have the opportunity to test these new loaders over the next few years on a full-scale A380 Freighter mock-up at Airbus in Bremen, Germany, in 2006 and on its MD-11s in 2007," he continues.
Four main designs have been put forward for the loader and include "in-line" and "square" configurations. All designs offer increased loading efficiency through higher pallet capability.
Apart from these two new pieces of ground support equipment, the A380 will also require improved tow tractors. Two "towbarless" tractors are already in service at Airbus manufacturing plants in Hamburg and Toulouse and it is expected these will be readily available before EIS (Entry Into Service).
"Manufacturers are also working on a 70-ton towbar tractor and it's also possible to modify existing 50-ton tractors with ballast to take them up to the necessary 70-ton weight," says Burger. "In fact, these are also already in use." Three Airbus facilitated working group meetings have been held on the subject since 2001, involving manufacturers such as Douglas, Koegel Kamag and FMC.
Equipment aside, more than 60 airports worldwide are either ready or preparing for the A380. New airports such as Hong Kong, or airports with new terminals, such as Munich with its Star Alliance-centric Terminal 2, are already equipped to deal with the aircraft. Others have a varying degree of adaptation ahead of them if they are to accommodate this giant of the skies.
Airbus believes that even when modification is required, airports still benefit from the A380. With existing aircraft, airports can only grow through the costly and troublesome duplication of existing infrastructure. Directly relevant A380 changes, on the other hand, can be achieved for relatively little.
For example, of the $10 billion JFK will spend over the next 10 years, only $0.1 billion will go towards A380 adaptation costs. Singapore Changi has spent a relatively modest $26 million (S$45m) on modifications.
In addition, a higher maximum takeoff weight should generate more aeronautical revenue and a 35 percent increase in passenger throughput with the same turnaround time should boost the non-aeronautical side as well.
Of course, not all the 129 A380 confirmed orders will be taking to the skies at once in 2006 and so many airports still have plenty of time to prepare. Nevertheless, BAA estimates that by 2016 one in every eight flights at London Heathrow will be an A380. The UK gateway is spending $819 million (?450m) on transforming existing terminal space and adjusting airfield operations. This includes reconfiguring gates and moving parallel taxiways to accommodate the 80m-plus wingspan; no easy task at a heavily used major gateway.
Munich, although the first airport in either Europe or North America with official clearance for the aircraft, is also continuing in its efforts to adapt. Henning Pfisterer, airport safety manager, reports that new equipment, such as emergency stairs capable of reaching the upper deck, will have to be purchased and the airport is also considering other equipment that although not necessary "would simply enhance service." The Bavarian hub will also look to update the older Terminal 1, currently served by carriers such as Emirates, which has a massive 45 A380s on order.
In Asia and the Middle East, airports are generally well advanced. Dubai, home to Emirates and the largest A380 fleet for the foreseeable future, has taken its usual "no expense spared" approach to the problem.
In addition, Singapore Changi, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Hong Kong are all ready. Hong Kong, for example, incorporated the A380 requirements during the design stage of its award-winning airport. Five gates on the Northwest Concourse can provide for the A380 without any need to amend the apron stand or terminal layout. The airport also reports it doesn't "foresee any immediate problems regarding passenger and baggage handling."
It seems certain the introduction of the A380 will mark a new era in travel. For airports and ground handling companies, however, the trick lies in blending the old with the new and making sure most equipment and processes are not unduly affected. Somewhat ironically, the success of the aircraft depends largely on what happens on the ground.