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Big plane, big crowd ... big deal

March 20, 2007|Paul Thornton

IT WOULD BE an understatement to label me an aviation nerd. So I was thrilled when I learned that I would have a front-row seat to an event billed as history: the mega-jumbo Airbus A380's first arrival in Los Angeles.

But what struck me most at LAX on Monday morning was the surreal disconnect between the reality and the hype of the moment. Yes, the pomp and circumstance were all about the plane of tomorrow coming to a storied international gateway. But wasn't this really about a long-delayed airliner that is an embarrassing symbol of pan-European industrial policy finally arriving at a tired airport that is an embarrassment in international aviation circles?

I'll give the A380 this: It is a stunning sight. While it was descending to LAX's northernmost runway, the plane seemed to dwarf the hotels on Century Boulevard. The engines were bafflingly quiet as they pushed the plane to its final stop before a crowd of VIPs and other onlookers.

But a few minutes after the plane arrived, the surrealism kicked into high gear.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that super-size planes such as the A380 are "better for our airports." But in the distance behind him, aging terminals were already crowded wingtip-to-wingtip with jets much smaller than the A380. An executive from Qantas Airways, which will be the first airline to fly the A380 to L.A., boasted of his airline's commitment to LAX as the airport's biggest international carrier -- even as Qantas moves some flights that serve LAX north to San Francisco's gleaming new international terminal.

The most perplexing comments came from Allan McArtor, head of Airbus North America. He declared that the A380 is "perfectly designed" for LAX. In an abstract sense, he has a point -- airlines plan to make L.A. the top destination in the U.S. for the A380, and ideally, bigger planes mean fewer flights.

But in reality, LAX is one of the worst-equipped airports that will handle the A380. By the end of this year, just two gates at LAX will be able to accommodate the plane. In fact, McArtor promised airport officials more than a year ago that L.A. would host the A380's first U.S. stop if they fasttracked gate upgrades for the plane. But last month, Airbus decided to send the A380 to New York instead, even though LAX fulfilled its part of the bargain. Airport officials complained, and Airbus decided to land A380s minutes apart in New York and L.A.

Alas, we got the con solation prize. New York hosted a fully decked-out plane carrying nearly 500 passengers -- mostly Lufthansa and Airbus employees -- who enjoyed full meal service on their transatlantic hop. The plane that landed in L.A. carried mostly test computers and other equipment.

None of this is to say that the A380 isn't an engineering marvel. But the party LAX threw for the plane's visit shouldn't delude anyone. Our airport has a lot of catching up to do if it plans to be the A380 gateway that airlines want.

Paul Thornton

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