Hamburg has overcome planning hurdles and earmarked €650 million in its determination to ensure expansion of the city's Airbus facility

Before Airbus had even named its 555-seat ultra-large aircraft the A380, the Hamburg state government had already begun fighting planning battles to reclaim part of the River Elbe to free land for expansion to Airbus Deutschland.

The state was so determined to convince Airbus of the city's obvious advantages over Toulouse and award the site the then-A3XX final assembly line, that it earmarked c650 million ($578 million) for the 140ha (300 acre) expansion of the firm's facility at Finkenwerder, 30km (20 miles) from the city's central business district.

Linked by sea to Airbus UK at Broughton and the cockpit production line in St Nazaire in France, Hamburg would have made the logistics of bringing the large parts of the airliner together simpler. Yet despite this, after much political in-fighting, Toulouse was chosen by Airbus as the site for final assembly, which involves the manufacturer using canals and oversized road transporters to get components to the new Aéroconstellation assembly hall.

Already committed to the site expansion, Hamburg was awarded the consolation prize of undertaking major component sub-assembly (forward and rear fuselage) and interior completion. Additionally, all A380s destined for European, African and Middle Eastern customers will also be delivered from Hamburg, rather than Toulouse.

Hamburg currently assembles the A319, A321, and the new A318. Curiously, the fuselage for the other single-aisle family member, the A320 itself, is transported in the A300-600ST Beluga to a second A320 family final assembly line, again in Toulouse. This is not national politics, as most onlookers suspect, but rather sound economics, insists Stuart Mann, director of product marketing for the A320 family. It will only be changed "once the programme is dying and there is a requirement to slow production down", he says.

But despite the knock-back of not having won the final assembly line for the new airliner, Hamburg is still the largest of five Airbus sites in Germany and second only in importance to Toulouse.

The extension will almost double the total size of the site to 270ha. Such a large site is difficult to accommodate anywhere with little disruption and, without knowing the outcome of the fraught location talks, the city of Hamburg considered several other possibilities for the facility, including a former submarine factory to the east of Airbus's current location. But after feasibility studies, the best solution was considered to be land reclamation and work began on expanding the location in early 2000.

When completed next year, Airbus will have spent $10.7 billion on new facilities on the site. This includes four hangars of 1,000m2 (10,800ft2) each for the ultra-large aircraft. There will be a cabin furnishing hall and the fuselage production lines, housed in the Major Component Assembly (MCA) hall, in addition to two paintshops.  Airbus is confident that it will paint most of the A380s in-house, as other paintshops will be unable to accommodate it.

Airbus has pioneered a "light assembly" technique after years of political compromises have left subassemblers with more responsibility than their US counterparts. Described as "centres of excellence", each facility produces complete subassemblies, equipped with electrical and hydraulic cabling. This system means that the Toulouse assembly line accounts for only around 5% of the total production effort. This is indicative of national governments' desire to retain skill bases.


With each hangar standing 37m (107ft) high at the tallest point, and measuring 100m2, the challenge is to reduce the volume, says Ulrich Weber, head of A380 final assembly line activities at Hamburg. Ventilation is a major cost, as the facility has to have scrubbed air to avoid polluting paint particles. This has been achieved architecturally.

The hangar is suspended from an external skeleton and has volume minimisation compartments in the ceiling put in place once the aircraft is in the hangar. These contribute to a 30% volume saving compared with a traditional hangar. This external structure was first used on the A340 final assembly line in Toulouse and is an example, says Weber, of applying successful techniques across the company.

The equipment used inside the hangars will also benefit from shared knowledge. The A320 family completion is done in stages, a luxury not available to the massive A380. Instead, new jigs that permit teams of hundreds to work on the interior have been developed. The jigs have telescopic platforms rising up from the floor, again a trick learnt from the Toulouse A340 line, but additionally, Finkenwerder will have platforms descending from the roof. The company estimates it will only take 20 days to complete an A380's cabin furnishings, not least since each of the 200 workers can enter through any of the aircraft's entrances on three floors.

Not surprisingly, there has been opposition to site expansion from some in the local population. The suburb of Blankenese lies to the north of the Rusch peninsula on which Finkenwerder sits. It is home to some of Hamburg's wealthiest and most influential residents. Airbus says that its plans for the site have taken into account the views of its neighbours.

Engine run-up tests will be carried out in a separate hangar, 4km from Blankenese at the far end of the new runway. Airbus has applied for a reduction in flights, claiming that its increased use of sea transport and eventually airships will allow it to reduce movements from 35 to 30 a day.

It will use low-level buildings and visibility-reduction landscaping techniques. Airbus points to the extensive use of 9m-high dykes. However, these were required anyway under Hamburg's flood defence regulations, to avoid a repeat of the damage caused in 1976 when the water table reached 7.5m.

Equally, environmentalists were highly resistant to the development over flights of another kind. The Mühlenberger Loch is next to the Rusch peninsula, home to a rare species of duck. Despite only reclaiming a fifth of the water in the lake, developers are recreating a habitat twice the size of the section filled in metres away from the ducks' traditional nesting area. The European Commission ruled that the protesters' concerns were valid, but the creation of over 4,000 jobs was worth the possible loss.

But in the town of Finkenwerder, opposition is centring on road access, as the expansion has not been coupled with the long-promised construction of a four-lane highway.  For this reason, construction of the site's new quay was first to be completed, allowing more construction traffic to be transported by water. Half the site's work force arrives by ferry each day from the local train station over the river.

Despite not winning the jewel in the A380 crown, Hamburg has nonetheless geared up as the former home of oceanliners becomes a major centre of airliner production.

Source: Flight International