Will Airbus's new ultra-large A380 provide the solution to slot shortages - or will it just cause problems for cash-strapped airports?

Airport bosses can see the new Airbus A380 as a nuisance or as a solution, depending on whether their runway capacity is slot-limited. If the ability to expand passenger throughput depends on increasing the average number of passengers per aircraft movement, then the A380 is what airport chiefs dream of. But if slots are no problem, a customer airline using the A380 might force the airport to modify gates, parking, taxiway spacing and in-terminal passenger processing capacity.

Naturally, Airbus touts its big, 550-passenger A380-800 as the solution - and not only for airports. It predicts travel demand will increase by half by 2008, will double in the next 15 years and triple within 23 years. And freight demand will increase more rapidly, it says. This will put intolerable pressure on air traffic management systems, says Airbus, so the ability to move larger numbers of passengers in one traffic unit will be a godsend.

Airbus resents any suggestion that in planning its new ultra-large aircraft (ULA), it would not have taken into account the needs of airports as well as airlines. "Not a single airport has said it will not be able to accommodate the A380," says Airbus head of infrastructure Willy-Pierre Dupont.

The first - albeit not quite complete - operating manual that Airbus has published for the A380 is for ground operations. It covers everything from undercarriage footprint, gate dimensions and turnaround time, to diagrams laying out the options for positioning loading/unloading/servicing vehicles around the aircraft. Airlines and airport operators have had the manual for a year.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation has been working with Airbus to determine the standards that should apply to the new generation large aircraft, and the manufacturer has been consulting national agencies on matters such as safety risk assessments, says Dupont.

ICAO fire and rescue standards must be upgraded from the 747's category 9 to category 10 because of the A380's extra fuselage width. One part of this requirement is an increase in extinguishing capacity from 29,000 to 40,000litres. Airport service providers must also consider the need for towing/pushback vehicles to have more power and greater surface grip.

Different dimensions

Crucial factors for airports include wingspan, length, pavement loading, undercarriage footprint width, turning circle and take-off/landing performance. Fin height is important because it can obscure the control tower's view of other traffic.

Airbus increased only three of these dimensions compared with the types airports handle already. The A380's wingspan is 79.6m, 15m wider than the 747's, which Dupont says was the figure airports quoted as a maximum. Length, at 72.7m, is less than the 747 or the A340-600 and 777-300. Undercarriage footprint width is 3m wider than the 747's, and Airbus concedes that a few airports may have to add filleting to taxiway corners, but says this will already have been done by any airport that operates the 777-300. Pavement loading is lower than the Boeing 747's because there are more wheels, but airports with taxiways or runways that bridge tunnels must review the weight-bearing capacity of the bridging. Take-off and landing distances are about 1,700ft (518m) less than the 747's.

Airbus makes it sound as though airports need do virtually nothing to prepare for the new ULA, but it has been doing a lot of work to help them. It has surveyed 81 airports across the world that will or may see A380 operations, whether passenger or pure freight, based on aircraft orders and expressions of interest. Among the 81, Airbus has identified "likely early airports", and has prioritised these according to estimates of when they will see their first A380s. "Many airports had anticipated something larger and heavier," says Dupont, so the A380 has not been as demanding as many had feared.

The 2006/07 starters comprise 12 airports, including Dubai, one of the first major A380 hub airports where launch customer Emirates is based. Dubai will have a new terminal 3 dedicated mainly to the A380; Singapore's flag carrier Singapore Airlines will be the first to put the A380 into service, so Changi airport will be ready; and Tokyo Narita, Japan, and Sydney, Australia, are also gearing up. Also on the list is London Heathrow, UK, home to early customer Virgin Atlantic, but which is also certain to be served by almost all early customers using the A380.

Second wave

Airbus has named 11 airports in the second wave (2007/2009) including Frankfurt Main, Germany, and Bangkok, Thailand. It has also named 18 more "potentials" for early start, including Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Mumbai, India; and Amsterdam and Madrid in Europe.

The USA has no A380 launch customers except pure cargo operator FedEx, but Miami, New York Kennedy, Los Angeles and San Francisco are named in the first-wave group as having to be ready to handle the massive passenger load and turn the aircraft around. US airports in the second wave are Memphis, FedEx's hub, and Chicago O'Hare, which expects to be a target of those who could use the aircraft's very long range to offer non-stop services.

Airbus admits the issue of who pays for airport improvements has been raised, but it is adamant airports will get a good return on the investment. The cost of adapting airports to accept the A380 is only 3-5% of the investment in expansion that airports would have to make in any case, says Dupont. So airports like Chicago that resent making the investment for, say, one arrival and departure a day when A380 operations begin, have to decide whether they want to miss out on the future growth potential brought by the new type.

Enabling A380 operations can delay or even mitigate the need for a new runway, says Dupont. An Airports Council International survey of 30 airports likely to handle the A380 concludes that the average cost of upgrading for a ULA is $100 million, but some of that investment would have been needed in other forms to handle traffic increase with current types.

A 747 can be turned around in 90min, and airlines made it clear they did not want the A380 to take longer. Airbus says that with two airbridges to the main deck, that is easily achievable. There is no need for an upper-deck bridge because the wide, straight staircase between upper and main deck allows swift embarkation or disembarkation via the main deck. A third airbridge would be needed only if an airline chose high-density cabin seating.

Right way up

Baggage handling in the terminal would ideally involve a 90m carousel instead of a 70m one, but Airbus says 60m would be fine with simple improvements to baggage procedures. Techniques as simple as ensuring handles always face the passengers can speed up collection, say airlines. Airports are more reticent on the subject.

Existing ground power units (GPUs) can supply the A380's requirements, but must be run at higher power. Cool air supply capability must go up by 35%, however, demanding more power and more hoses. 747s are often served at hot airports with one cool air supply hose, but that would not do for A380 passengers.

Catering requirements can be met using the same vehicles that serve 747s, but Airbus admits that for fast turnaround, the vehicles should be aircraft-specific.

The A380-800F freighter that will be delivered to FedEx and Emirates in 2008 will need special loading equipment because of the need to raise cargo 8m to the upper deck. This is 200mm higher than the 747's upper deck, which is not used for cargo anyway. FedEx is talking to two manufacturers, Orlando, Florida-based FMC Airport Systems and Air Marrel of France.

Possible solutions include a purely FedEx deal with the chosen supplier, or a deal jointly with Airbus or other A380 operators. FedEx vice-president of aircraft acquisitions Jim Parker says: "It's a lot less work to prepare the airports than people imagine. I think the passenger guys will have a tougher time with the gates." Emirates is acquiring two A380-800Fs partly because the belly hold on the twin-deck passenger version carries less freight in addition to passenger bags than the 747 does.

Current design has the A380 meeting QC2 London Heathrow departure noise standards, two grades better than the 747-400, says Airbus, with further noise cuts planned. Arrivals are promised at QC1. Airbus says emissions will be lower than future ICAO requirements. Engine choice is the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or the General Electric/Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200, both large-diameter fan units.

It will be 2005 before A380 flight tests begin and Airbus can prove its promises to the air transport world, which should then be free of the shadow of 11 September and the present economic downturn.

Source: Flight International