January 28, 2001
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON -- The Airbus A380 is so large that it cannot park at a
terminal designed for a row of Boeing 747's. It is so long that it
will handle some taxiways like a tractor- trailer truck turning
into a suburban driveway, wheels mushing into the grass and mud. It
is so heavy that it cannot taxi across some culverts and bridges,
including spans over expressways at Kennedy International Airport
in New York.
Its engines are spaced so far apart that their exhaust could fry a
runway's guide lights. Its body is so wide and tall that tower
controllers may have to ban aircraft from nearby runways and
taxiways before the plane lands or takes off.
And it carries so many passengers, up to 555 in the initial
version and potentially up to 800 nearly double the passenger
load of a 747 that flights may have to use two baggage-claim
carousels at a time to handle all the suitcases.
Despite these potential headaches, officials at airports say they
are looking forward to the debut of the A380, which will displace
the 747-400 as the world's biggest commercial jetliner. Airbus
announced this month that it had enough orders to begin the A380's
production; the company plans to fly a prototype in late 2004.
Bigger planes are essential, airport officials say, because the
alternative is many more planes that are merely big like the
747-400, which generally can carry 416 people. And many airports
are already clogged with large numbers of planes because of
increased demand for airline travel.
Richard J. Louis, the manager of operations at Kennedy, said the
A380 could help ease congestion at the airport, where the number of
takeoffs and landings is strictly limited between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
"It's beneficial to us to move as many people per flight as
possible," he said, and an obvious solution is bigger airplanes.
Boeing, the main competitor of Airbus, has called the A380 a
colossal financial mistake. But Boeing, too, has plans for a bigger
plane of its own, known for now as the 747X. That plane would be
100 tons lighter than the A380 but would still cause problems for
airports. In fact, the difference in weight between the two planes
is about equal to that of a Boeing 727.
Airbus has said it foresees no logistical challenges at major
airports around the world that will receive the A380. But many of
those airports have much work to do to prepare for such a huge
visitor. At the same time, the airports have no choice, and if past
practice is any guide, they almost certainly will pass many of the
modification costs on to the airlines in the form of higher landing
fees. And the airlines, in turn, will pass them on to passengers in
the form of higher fares.
A 1998 study by the Federal Aviation Administration of "New Large
Aircraft," defined as the A380 and 747X, concluded that "the
introduction of N.L.A. will significantly affect nearly every U.S.
airport intending to accept them."
A 1997 study by the F.A.A. estimated the modification costs for
handling large planes at the 22 largest domestic airports at $3.8
billion, but that number largely reflects a few huge projects: new
runways at San Francisco ($2.8 billion) and St. Louis ($576
million), where the layout is too cramped to accommodate changes
required for the new aircraft. Airports Council International, a
trade group of airports, has conducted a study showing that fewer
airports will be affected, and that they will probably spend an
average of $67 million each to upgrade.
Overseas, some airports may have to spend far more. Officials at
Heathrow Airport near London, where at least four carriers are
expected to fly A380's, said last month that it would spend at
least $220 million to accommodate the planes, widening taxiways and
expanding two terminals.
The changes are probably the biggest since the 747 started flying
30 years ago, although they may be smoother this time. Airbus has
been talking with airports for about five years and has limited the
plane's wingspan, partly to reduce changes that airports must make.
The A380 is so big, however, that almost- comical oversights in
planning have already caused problems in the construction phase of
the plane. Its fuselage is so wide, for example, that it cannot fit
into Airbus's own enormous A300-600ST "Beluga" supertransporter.
That means that gigantic truck convoys will have to transport the
part from construction plants in Europe to final assembly at
Airbus's headquarters in Toulouse, France; some outraged local
French officials have said they will ban the convoys to protect the
environment. Last week, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin intervened,
beseeching recalcitrant locals to "come to their senses."
Accommodating ever- larger aircraft is nothing new for modern
airports they have been doing it for decades. They changed to
handle the DC-8, with a wingspan of 150 feet, in the early 1960's,
and the first 747's, with wingspans of about 200 feet, in the early
1970's. Lengths have grown, too; the DC-8 was less than 200 feet
long; the original 747 was about 230.
It is not clear how many changes airports must make if they are to
handle the new planes, which are expected to enter service in 2006.
One reason for the uncertainty is that the F.A.A. has not finished
a crucial analysis of what size "obstacle-free zone" will be
required when the plane is about to land.
If the required zone is larger than the one now provided by the
space between the runway and the taxiway, some airports, including
Kennedy, may have to clear the taxiway. That would mean more time
between landings or takeoffs, because the plane waiting in the
wings will be waiting farther away.
Derek R. Davis, director of product marketing for large aircraft
at Airbus, said gates at Kennedy would probably be a bigger issue
than taxiways. But the airport is building a terminal with four
gates that can receive A380's, he said.
Dulles International Airport outside Washington, another likely
candidate for the planes, is already in extensive reconstruction,
but its plan for accommodating the A380 remains vague. "In the next
six years we're going to be building another runway, and we're
going to be designing and building as more information comes in on
this type of aircraft," said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the
Washington Airports Authority.
Marc L. Schoen, manager for airport technology at Boeing, pointed
out that reconstruction projects are continuous. "Airports are
always changing," he said.
Although airports historically have passed along improvement costs
to the airlines, the expense of accommodating the A380 may cause
friction. Some carriers that fly smaller aircraft may balk at
burdening passengers with the cost of preparing an airport for the
new jumbo jets, airport officials predicted.
"Is Southwest going to want to pay the extra landing fees for
upgrading that airport?," said Richard F. Marchi, senior vice
president for technical and environmental affairs at Airports
Council International. He said some airlines, like Southwest, which
flies much smaller jets, were unlikely to ever fly an A380.
Some required airport changes are not obvious. For example, to get
1.24 million pounds into the air, the A380 carries engines more
powerful than those on 747's 75,000 pounds of thrust vs. 63,300.
Hanging from wings almost 262 feet across about 50 feet wider
than the 747-400 the A380's outer engines will be 154 feet apart.
But the width of a standard runway built for 747's is 150 feet. The
F.A.A. said the jet blasts could cause "serious soil erosion" and
destroy runway signs and lights unless runway shoulders were paved
and the signs and lights were moved.
Runway length is not a problem, because the A380 is supposed to
land and take off in the same 11,000 feet as the 747-400. Weight on
the runway is not an issue, either, according to the manufacturer;
its main landing gear will have 20 wheels, four more than that of a
747-400, and thus will have less weight on each wheel than the 747,
which weighs a maximum of 875,000 pounds at takeoff.
The A380's wheelbase, longer than a 747's, could create problems
on narrow taxiway turns. But the wheelbase is about the same as
that of Boeing's new 777, so turns that have already been broadened
for the 777 will suffice for the A380, airport experts say.
Airlines that have ordered the A380 seem in no hurry to enlarge
their airport waiting areas. At Virgin Atlantic Airways, Sharon E.
Pomerantz, a spokeswoman, said that Virgin already flew pairs of
747-400s into Kennedy and Newark International Airport in close
succession, and that passengers for both flights are often in the
terminal simultaneously. She said that expanding to handle a higher
number of passengers on the A380 would not be difficult.
That does not mean, however, that terminals are ready. "The
podiums, the walls, the hold rooms may be sized for 767 or 747,"
Mr. Marchi said. Still, he said, referring to the work of expanding
lounges, widening taxiways and strengthening bridges and culverts,
"it's a civil engineering problem, not brain surgery."
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