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Superjumbo causing airport headaches



Published: Sat, February 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The new aircraft is so large that few airports will be able to handle it.

SEATTLE (AP) -- It's one thing to build a really, really big airplane. But, it turns out, it's quite another to find a place for it to land.

U.S. airports from Seattle to Atlanta say accommodating Airbus SAS's new superjumbo A380 in anything other than an emergency would require major construction. Runways would need widening and terminals would need upgrades to load and unload the double-decker plane easily.

Even with those improvements, airports might need to curtail other airport traffic to let the big jet lumber through the airfield. And some officials worry the weight of the A380 would collapse tunnels and buckle overpasses.

What's more, some airport officials say they just aren't seeing the demand for the A380 that would warrant such cost and inconvenience.

"Let's do a cost/benefit analysis: Are you really going to spend millions of dollars [when] you might have two of them a day fly in?" aviation analyst Mike Boyd said.

Stretching about three-quarters of the length of a football field, the A380 isn't much longer than Boeing Co.'s latest version of the 747, the largest commercial airplane in the skies until the A380 enters service next year.

But the A380's 261-foot wingspan is 50 feet wider than the 747, broader than many runways and taxiways were built to accommodate. The airplane also weighs in at a maximum of 1.2 million pounds, 30 percent more than the biggest 747.

The Federal Aviation Administration says just four U.S. airports -- John F. Kennedy in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami -- are formally working with regulators on plans to accept the new plane for passengers. Another two -- Anchorage and Memphis -- are working with the FAA to take the cargo version.

Airbus says it also has talked with many other airports and anticipates several more will be able to land the plane on a regular basis by 2011.

Lack of interest

Still, Boyd and other analysts say the scant interest among U.S. airports could be trouble for Toulouse, France-based Airbus, which has 139 firm orders for the A380 so far.

"For the next decade, this is a niche aircraft," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group.

Executives at Boeing's Seattle-based commercial airplanes division, which makes the competing 747, won't have to worry about the A380 literally darkening their doorstep. To take the A380 for anything other than an emergency, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport would have to spend tens of millions of dollars just on terminal upgrades. The airport also would have to curtail some other airplane traffic while the plane was on its airfield.

Mark Reis, managing director of SeaTac, said the geometry of the airport "just does not lend itself to operation of the aircraft of that size on a regular basis."

No airline has expressed a desire to fly the A380 to Seattle, Reis said.

Necessary renovations

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is in the midst of a $6 billion airport expansion, but the major upgrade doesn't include plans to accommodate routine A380 flights. The airport is not willing to make the necessary changes without seeing more airline interest in the A380, spokeswoman Felicia Browder said.

Still, some of the nation's largest airports say the A380 is worth the hassle.

The runways at San Francisco International Airport are so close together that the airport will only be able to land one A380 at a time, and traffic restrictions will be required to let the plane maneuver around the airfield. But spokesman Mike McCarron said the airport plans to take up to six A380s a day, perhaps beginning in the fall of 2006. The airport already has spent just under $1 billion to build a new, 23-gate terminal that includes five gates to handle the A380.

"We have a huge Asian market, [and] we see the A380 as a growth area to the Asian market," McCarron said.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is spending around $120 million for upgrades including widening one runway and reinforcing taxiway bridges that go over major area roadways. But spokesman Tony Ciavolella said any terminal improvements would have to be done by the airlines who lease those properties.

At Chicago's O'Hare, spokeswoman Annette Martinez said the airport is working on interim changes that will enable it to accommodate the plane by the end of 2007, while hoping for approval of a big expansion that would make it practical to take the A380 in the long term.

And Los Angeles International Airport plans to spend $53 million on airport-wide improvements, including $2.25 million to make sure underground structures don't buckle under the A380's weight.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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