When it arrives in the U.S. later this decade, the world's largest passenger jet will be quieter, less polluting and more comfortable than its predecessors, its makers boast.
The 555-seat behemoth will be able to travel 9,200 miles--or from Los Angeles to Singapore--fully loaded, without refueling. The super-jumbo jet might also provide greater profitability for airlines and cheaper air fares for passengers; not to mention more legroom and headroom, and on-board duty-free shops and cocktail lounges.
But for all the grace it's supposed to exhibit in the air, the Airbus A380 is already causing big headaches on the ground. The nation's largest airports worry that they won't be ready to wedge the 239-foot-long plane into their aged and cramped facilities.
The problem is most evident at Los Angeles International Airport, where executives expect more A380 operations than at any other facility in the world.
Runways need to be separated and taxiways widened at LAX, and passenger jet ways, connecting planes and terminals, must be reconfigured to ensure that the two-deck planes don't hopelessly clog the airfield. New methods will be needed to speedily service the huge airplane with fuel and food and to unload trash and thousands of gallons of waste.
Time is running short to complete years of planning and construction at airports from Anchorage to Miami in time for the A380's expected American debut in 2006. As that date approaches, the stakes for both Airbus and airports such as LAX are escalating.
The European consortium has bet its future on the jumbo jet, which is 35% larger than the Boeing 747. And officials at the Los Angeles agency that operates LAX say their ability to accommodate the plane is crucial to preventing San Francisco International Airport from snatching away Los Angeles' status as the gateway to the Pacific Rim. Bay Area leaders have been more willing to push for airport expansion than their counterparts in Los Angeles.
On one thing everyone agrees: This big bird will need a whole new kind of nest. Its enormous, 261-foot wingspan is ample enough for three blue whales to stretch out head to tail. On each flight, it can transport the weight of 37 MTA buses, or 560 tons. It's so tall that airport firefighters will have to double the length of their ladders to reach doors on the second deck.
These revolutionary dimensions prompted federal officials, who make rules governing airport design, to review 19-year-old guidelines for larger aircraft.
The FAA had previously called for a 30% widening of taxiways and runways, but now officials say the plane might need less extra space. The agency's final ruling, expected next year, is crucial because airports that accept federal funds must comply with the guidelines.
The delayed FAA decision makes airport officials nervous because it typically takes 11 years, from design to construction, to create airport facilities.
For now, airport managers are left to speculate about how much retrofitting their facilities will need for the A380. One estimate, provided in a recently released report by the federal General Accounting Office, predicts that it will cost $2.1 billion for 14 large airports to prepare for the plane.
Airport officials provided the cost estimates to the GAO, which tallied them and drafted the report. Researchers hoped the data would lead to more specific parameters for accommodating the big planes. Instead, the study raised doubts about how airports can prepare for the A380.
"There are some uncertainties involved in terms of what needs to be done," said Belva Martin, an assistant director at the GAO and one of the report's authors. "Do we have to make major changes? Can airports get waivers? Will airlines that serve our airports actually buy these aircraft and bring them here?"
The logistics and cost of accommodating the A380 are of no small consequence to Airbus, which hopes the plane can supplant Boeing's venerable 747 as a long-haul workhorse.
Airbus is putting $12 billion into the new plane.
"It's a huge bet," said Richard L. Aboulafia, director of aviation consulting for the Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va.-based research and consulting firm. "They've made a whole lot of risky bets before and haven't been wrong. But this time they're really betting the company."
In the future, Airbus expects more air travel between hub airports--tilting aviation in favor of larger airplanes that can consolidate several flights into one.
Boeing, in contrast, predicts that air travel will continue to fragment and that more travelers will want to bypass hubs, making large aircraft less necessary.
With the stakes so high, Airbus is fighting any suggestion that its double-decker plane won't fit into America's airports.
The company came out swinging at the GAO's findings, saying many of the $2.1 billion in predicted upgrades are needed to accommodate more passengers, not for A380 operations. The company puts the figure needed to modernize the 14 airports for the A380 at $520 million.