Indianapolis Drops Plans to Upgrade for A380

April 12, 2007
Since FedEx won't fly A380, Indianapolis cancels plans to improve taxiway.

Indianapolis International Airport won't be rolling out an expensive red carpet for the new "queen of the skies," in the form of millions of dollars in taxiway modifications for the Airbus A380.

Not only did airport tenant FedEx cancel its order for the cargo version of the "super-jumbo" last November, but no other carriers have indicated they'll likely use the super-jumbo here, said airport Director Patrick Dooley.

Nor, Dooley added, is there a compelling case to be made for taxiway upgrades merely as a contingency for A380's being diverted here occasionally from Chicago's O'Hare International or other airports.

So managers are removing all references to the A380 in a long-range airport plan about to be submitted to the city's Metropolitan Planning Agency.

That plan lists potential airport capital projects in order to give city, state and federal agencies an idea of which ones the airport might pursue funding for down the road.

In a filing with MPO last summer, airport managers estimated they might need to make $ 21 million in taxiway improvements for the A380. The airport indicated it might seek $ 16 million of that from federal Airport Improvement Program funds.

AIP funds are drawn from the trust fund supported from fuel taxes paid by motorists and various user fees.

Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx -- which operates its second-largest hub in Indianapolis -- was to have started flying the A380 out of the city, possibly within this decade.

But it canceled orders with Europe's Airbus after delivery delays attributed to electrical problems. Some analysts have said the aircraft maker also is scrambling to pare the weight of the double-decker aircraft.

Airbus said it still has more than 160 A380 orders from passenger carriers, but delivery delays are generating financial losses for the European consortium that owns it.

"The whole future for the A380 right now looks pretty abysmal, at least for cargo," Dooley said.

In place of the A380, FedEx ordered 15 Boeing 777 freighters. Indianapolis International can accommodate the big planes already. The first deliveries are due in 2009, although FedEx spokeswoman Paula Bosler said she couldn't say specifically when Indianapolis would see 777s.

The issue with the A380 in Indianapolis was its wider turning radius and that its outboard engines might extend beyond the width of taxiways -- possibly ingesting rocks and other debris.

The A380's wings are 50 feet wider than the current Boeing 747. It's nearly 8 feet longer, 16 feet taller and 300,000 pounds heavier.

Both the A380 and 777 have the range to fly directly to Indianapolis from parts of Asia. Currently, the FedEx fleet stops first in Alaska before heading here.

A 2001 survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office on the A380 impact put the cost of modifying 14 major U.S. airports, including Indianapolis, at $ 2 billion.

The growth of FedEx at the airport -- it employs 4,200 and announced a $ 214 million expansion last year -- hasn't yet strained the capacity of existing runways.

Airport officials say a third parallel runway, eyed for south of Interstate 70, is still years away and isn't in the airport's 10-year plan.

Even so, the airport wants to keep its options open. As a result, its 2007-2010 submission to the MPO shows a potential to spend $ 7.7 million over the next three years for land acquisition and site preparation for the runway.

"The Airport Authority purchases land when placed on the market when such land is within the master plan for the airport. As such, we always put a placeholder in all planning reports and budgets to provide funding sources in the event land becomes available," Dooley said.

County zoning officials already temper land-use decisions on the assumption that the area eventually will house a new runway.

The airport has been buying land south of the interstate for years, partly for aircraft noise reasons. The area now is mostly barren, dotted with the occasional house.

"We just want to be prepared for anything that might be out there in the future," said Michael Wells, a longtime member of the Indianapolis Airport Authority board.

Airport officials want to lure more cargo carriers to Indianapolis International, the nation's eighth-largest cargo airport.

Last month, the Airport Authority approved a $ 250,400 study for an "international air cargo facility" that could be built here to accommodate cargo carriers beyond FedEx. *

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