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Bracing for crowds, LAX expects jet's arrival to be huge

March 18, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

As it lumbers in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday morning, the world's largest passenger jet will make its West Coast debut in what could be the biggest spectacle at the facility in more than three decades.

Officials expect thousands of onlookers to line airport fences to see the Airbus A380, an eight-story-high behemoth with a double-decked cabin and a wingspan nearly the length of a football field.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction
A380 illustration: A graphic that ran Sunday with an article in the California section about the impending arrival of Airbus' newest passenger airliner inaccurately depicted the shape of the A380, based on outdated prototypes. The A380 was drawn correctly in a graphic that ran Tuesday in Section A in conjunction with articles about the plane's U.S. arrival. That version can be viewed by searching for the article by keyword "A380" on latimes.com.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
A380 illustration: A graphic that ran March 18 with a Section A article about the impending arrival of Airbus' newest passenger airliner inaccurately depicted the shape of the A380, based on outdated prototypes. The A380 was drawn correctly in a graphic that ran March 20 in Section A in conjunction with stories about the plane's U.S. arrival.

"We're planning for the largest turnout since the Concorde came in 1974," said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for Los Angeles World Airports. "This could be huge, and we're doing everything possible to be ready."

Southern California already is experiencing an uplift from the massive jet: More than 100 area suppliers contributed to the aircraft's construction, pumping $1.5 billion into the region's economy since 2003.

Los Angeles fought to host this pivotal moment in U.S. aviation history. Despite having promised to bring the A380 to LAX first if improvements were made at the airport, Airbus announced earlier this year plans to land the jumbo jet in New York instead. LAX officials sent a strongly worded letter to company executives in Toulouse, France, and Airbus relented just three weeks ago.

So at 9:30 a.m., one of two inaugural U.S. test flights is scheduled to touch down at LAX from Toulouse, about the same time a second aircraft will land at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport from Frankfurt, Germany.

About 550 of Lufthansa's frequent fliers, along with reporters and news crews, will be aboard the New York flight. Several dozen technicians will arrive on the LAX test jet, which will carry primarily instrumentation and water-filled tanks designed to adjust the aircraft's center of gravity.

But beyond the short-term buzz generated by the A380's arrival is the question of what mark the jet ultimately will make on aviation history.

Airlines say that when they start to fly the 555-seat jet commercially in the next few years, it will allow them to carry more passengers per trip, lowering costs. The super jumbo jet also could help space-constrained airports, including LAX, by allowing carriers to combine several flights into one.

Even so, the A380 is not expected to transform the industry the way its predecessor, Boeing Co.'s venerable 747, did when it arrived in 1970 and finally helped make flying affordable for the masses. Not enough A380s have been sold so far to fuel this kind of change, analysts say.

"It's not going to be a revolution; it's going to be an evolution," said Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "You and I, and everybody else who flies, will determine whether this airplane is a hit or a flop."

To be sure, the A380, which is about 30% larger than Boeing's 747, is considered by many to be an engineering marvel. But it doesn't represent change on the scale its older cousin did. When the 747 came into service in the early 1970s, it was 2 1/2 times larger than the airplane it replaced.

There are some similarities between the flying giants. Skeptics contended that there wasn't a market for the 747 either, and the plane didn't sell well in the beginning. Airports said they wouldn't be able to wedge its signature hump into their facilities. To date, Boeing has sold 1,500 747s. Airbus has orders for 156 A380s.

But the 21st century air travel market is different from that of the early 1970s. More people are flying than ever, and they want frequent, nonstop routes between many cities. Boeing -- Airbus' main rival -- is betting that because of this, airlines will favor smaller, more efficient jets that can bypass larger hubs. Airbus, on the other hand, believes there is a strong market for new super jumbo jets that will patronize these hub airports.

The A380 flights to the U.S. are a way for Airbus to burnish its image after wiring problems caused a two-year delay in deliveries and led to the resignation of top executives and layoffs of 10,000 workers. In the U.S., Airbus' woes helped Boeing sell more planes, including an updated version of the 747 that Airbus had hoped would fade away when it introduced the A380. Boeing sold a record number of airplanes last year and surpassed Airbus in orders for the first time since 2000.

The ongoing dogfight between the U.S. and European plane makers aside, Airbus officials say the A380 will benefit Los Angeles economically because seven carriers at LAX have ordered the massive jet. The airport is expected to serve more A380s than any other U.S. facility because of its status as the country's largest gateway to the Pacific Rim.

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