By Mike Nizza
Airbus Superjumbo Takes a Lap Around America
The Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger jet, turned heads as it arrived in Los Angeles as it began its American tour.
For all its troubles, the double-decker superjumbo Airbus A380 is enjoying a star turn in the aviation world spotlight.
The largest passenger plane in the world began its United States
tour this week, arriving yesterday at Kennedy International Airport.
After touching down gently, the pilot opened a cockpit window to wave
an American flag to a crowd of reporters and photographers, including
those aboard three helicopters hovering nearby.
Tomorrow, the plane will take a celebratory “flight to nowhere” and
circle over Manhattan. Stops are also planned at Dulles International
outside Washington and O’Hare in Chicago. On the West Coast, another
A380 flew into Los Angeles International Airport yesterday morning,
where it was greeted by the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio R.
The plane can clearly generate excitement and buzz in the United States.
“When you see it fly, even hardened airplane hands stop and look,”
said Edmund S. Greenslet, publisher of Airline Monitor, a trade
publication. “It will be noticed. It is dramatic. To see it is to be
impressed at its sheer magnitude.”
But turning buzz into actual sales in the United States is another
matter. So far, no American carrier has bought the plane and many
experts anticipate that none will anytime soon.
The financial problems of some carriers prohibit them from affording
the $300 million craft. But, even more, American carriers say they have
no need for a plane so big — preferring instead smaller planes that can
carry 200 to 300 passengers for more frequent nonstop service between
An Airbus A380 preparing to touch down at Los Angeles International Airport today.
American Airlines, for example, has not purchased any A380s. Tim Wagner, a spokesman, said that American was instead using the Boeing
777, which carries 250 to 350 passengers, on such long-haul flights as
Chicago to New Delhi or Dallas to Tokyo. If demand on these routes
increases, American would rather offer more flights than use bigger
planes, he added.
“We’d rather meet customer demand with multiple flights a day
between cities than by having one flight on one gigantic aircraft,”
said Mr. Wagner.
Even Airbus concedes that its prospects are dim in the American market.
“In the near term, we are not expecting any sales to U.S.
carriers,” Clay McConnell, an Airbus spokesman, said. “It is not saying
that someday we won’t sell to the North American market. It’s just not
in the near term.”
That outlook differs sharply from Airbus’s optimism in the late
1990s, when it predicted a global demand for 1,440 of its superjumbo
jets, and forecast that at least 10 North American carriers would buy
Airbus, in its global market forecast at the time, even went so far as to proclaim, “The 747 is now too small for many routes.”
In the air freighter market, the giants of the United States air cargo industry — Federal Express and United Parcel Service
— have canceled nearly $6 billion in orders for a cargo version of the
A380, a move that caused some freighter orders to migrate to Boeing.
Airbus has not helped itself — problems with the plane have delayed
production. There are more than 300 miles of wires in the A380, and
problems installing them have forced Airbus to announce two delays in
its delivery schedule. The delivery problems have cost Airbus $3.3
billion so far and have led to layoffs of thousands of employees and
the ouster of the chief executive.
By contrast, Boeing has forecast a global demand for only 325
superjumbo jets. Rather than design an entirely new plane, Boeing came
up with a stretch version of the three-decades-old 747 and used it to
poach orders from A380 customers who grew tired of waiting. Most
recently, for instance, Lufthansa, one of Airbus’s core customers, put
in an order for 20 stretch 747s.
Come this October, however, prospects may brighten a bit as Airbus
expects to deliver the first passenger A380. Airbus has 156 A380 orders
from 14 carriers, with the biggest purchases from Emirates, Singapore,
Lufthansa and Qantas. It was a Lufthansa flight that landed in New York
yesterday; a Qantas plane landed in Los Angeles. Some plan to take
advantage of the plane’s size to offer more first-class amenities;
others plan to pack the planes with as many budget travelers as
While most carriers say they will put 550 or so passengers in the
A380, the craft is certified to carry up to 853 — about twice the
capacity of the biggest version of the Boeing 747.
Even though American carriers are not buying the craft, the A380
will be flying in American skies. International carriers are planning
to use the plane for flights in and out of Kennedy, O’Hare, Dulles, San
Francisco and Los Angeles. Eventually, Miami, Orlando, Dallas and
Denver may also see A380s.
For airports, the sheer size of the plane represents both a
challenge and a solution. Its wingspan is almost as long as a football
field, and it is eight stories tall, meaning airports have had to come
up with special double-deck gates so that passengers can enter the
plane on two levels.
Because airports are concerned about congestion both in the air and
on the ground, anything that increases the number of passengers without
increasing the number of flights is welcome.
“It’s not desirable to have more flights, but it is desirable to
have more people,” said William DeCota, director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates airports in the New York region, including Kennedy.
At the moment, many have been spending millions of dollars to make
the changes needed to accommodate the A380. New passenger gates must be
built. In some cases, runways or taxiways must be moved or expanded.
Taxiways over highways at some airports need to be strengthened to
carry the additional weight.
Over the last few months, Airbus has sent the A380 to about 40
airports around the globe to generate publicity and give rides to local
officials and the media. The flight in Washington this week will carry
members of Congress, their staffs and other government officials.
Part of the reason for the demonstration tour is to see whether the
plane can actually fit at gateway airports (and to prompt airports that
are lagging to speed up their renovations). At night, airports will
test how the plane maneuvers at gates and how it negotiates taxiways
and clears buildings.
At Kennedy Airport, planning for the A380 began a decade ago. While
the A380 was designed to fit into any airport that can handle a 747,
most American airports still needed to make modifications on the tarmac
and in their terminals to accommodate the A380.
“In 1996, Airbus came to us and was describing the plane,” said
James Fazio, chief operating officer of JFK International Airport
Terminal, the company that operates Terminal 4. “I remember looking at
them and thinking, ‘Are they crazy?’ But Airbus persevered and started
to push us to make the changes we needed to make.”
At Kennedy, where the runways were laid out in 1948, anticipating
the A380 led to a $179 million modernization program. Further changes
could raise the cost to about $300 million.
To that end, a major taxiway at Kennedy from the runway to the
terminal had to be moved so that the A380’s wings would not hang over
the edge and the plane could turn without hitting the terminal.
Another taxiway was built so the A380 could reach Runway 13, one of
the longest in the United States. Additional work was done to prevent
the A380’s jet blasts from destroying the ground next to the runways.
Airbus has tried to fend off criticism about the A380 requiring
costly airport overhauls. It has issued press releases outlining
“myths” about the plane and making the case that the A380 will be more
efficient in getting passengers on and off and can, for the most part,
use existing runways.
Over at Terminal 4 — where Emirates, Singapore, Virgin and Thai
Airways, all A380 customers, operate — new passenger-loading bridges
are being built so that travelers can enter the lower and upper deck of
the plane at the same time. Emirates plans to have three loading
bridges, one set aside for passengers who can exit its airline club
directly into the craft’s first-class lounge.
There are also two new baggage carousels able to handle more than 1,000 pieces of luggage each. The number of immigration
officials is also being increased. Mr. Fazio, the chief operating
officer of the terminal, estimated the Terminal 4 upgrades would cost
around $5 million.
And even though Mr. Fazio has seen planes of many sizes and shapes, he is still impressed with the massive scale of the A380.
“Wait until it flies over Manhattan,” he said. “It will block out the sun.”