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S.F. Airport Set for the Big One

The huge Airbus A380 will pull up to a gleaming terminal next year. In contrast, LAX plans to alter two gates for the double-decker.

January 18, 2006|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — With ample seating in its spacious international terminal and six gates equipped for doubledecker jets, not to mention a fine selection of restaurants, this city's airport is ready for the massive 555-seat A380 airliner.

LAX has none of the above.

While Southern California officials dickered during the last decade about how to modernize Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco built a gleaming $1-billion international terminal that was specifically designed to accommodate the new Airbus super-jumbo jet. The world's largest passenger plane is expected to start service to the West Coast in spring 2007.

The stark contrast between San Francisco International Airport and LAX -- which plans to modify two gates for the double-decker plane at the already cramped Tom Bradley International Terminal -- has led to speculation that San Francisco will woo A380 flights away from LAX.

"If airlines feel like they are not going to be able to be accommodated, then they'll start looking at other airports," said Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America. McArtor met last week with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and airport officials to urge them to move ahead with plans to modernize LAX so it will retain its status as the gateway to the Pacific Rim.

"It's no secret that San Francisco is delighted to entertain any of these carriers," McArtor said. "Once they move there and get the maintenance and the ticket counters and ground handling, it's very difficult to get that route back."

San Francisco formed a marketing division several years ago to sell its new terminal to carriers and has produced colorful promotional materials touting the airport's readiness for the super-jumbo jet.

Los Angeles City Council members were arguing, meanwhile, about whether the Bradley terminal needed new gates to handle the plane.

"We would love to be the first airport to accommodate the A380," said John Martin, San Francisco International's director. "Physically, given the size of San Francisco versus the size of other cities in the U.S., we wouldn't necessarily be first on the list, but perhaps because of the readiness of our facility we can be."

LAX is the nation's No. 1 gateway for Asian travelers and is likely to remain so, even if SFO steals some flights. The world's fifth-busiest airport, LAX served more than twice as many international passengers in the first nine months of 2005 as SFO.

The Los Angeles airport agency is confident that efforts underway to reconfigure gates for the A380 will be finished in time for the jet's arrival.

"LAX is ready today to accept the A380 -- there is no question about that," said Lydia Kennard, executive director of the agency, Los Angeles World Airports. "We intend to have the improvements done. We think we will compete very, very well with San Francisco."

But the Los Angeles economy could suffer, aviation officials warn, if the needed construction becomes snarled in delays or the airport is unable to handle the volume of A380 flights with its two retrofitted gates.

"We've seen a couple carriers already decide to move some early A380 routes to San Francisco because of lack of confidence that LAX can handle an A380," McArtor said.

Sixteen carriers have purchased 159 of the super-jumbo jets from Airbus, a European consortium based in Toulouse, France. Some airlines, including Qantas Airways, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and Korean Air, have said they will fly the behemoth aircraft to the United States.

On the West Coast, only the Los Angeles and San Francisco airports have plans to handle the plane.

"It's not our inherent right to get those aircraft," said Frank Clark, executive director of the nonprofit organization that represents airlines operating out of the Bradley terminal. "The carriers have invested too much in that aircraft to have the perception of the aircraft be eroded by poor service because our airport isn't ready."

Several other U.S. airports are updating their airfields and terminals to serve the A380, which will hold at least 140 more passengers than the Boeing 747. Besides LAX and SFO, they include New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, Dallas-Fort Worth International and airports in Miami and Orlando. LAX expects to spend $65.5 million on A380 upgrades.

At these airports, taxiway and runway intersections need to be widened so the jet's 261-foot wingspan -- the length of three blue whales stretched out head to tail -- doesn't take out airfield lights when a pilot turns.

Tunnels, such as the portion of Sepulveda Boulevard that runs beneath LAX runways, need to be reinforced to handle the aircraft, which could be as heavy as 37 Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses, or 560 tons.

The jet also requires special gates with two loading bridges -- one to reach the upper deck and one for the lower.

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