May 3,2007 -- A long-awaited report from the Government Accounting Office concludes that the superjumbo Airbus A-380 will create safety and other concerns at U.S. airports. This could restrict the plane's operations when it begins arriving here next year.
The huge double-decked plane, almost as long as a football field with a wingspan of 262 feet and a tail fin as tall as 80 feet, weighs a massive 1.2 million pounds when fully loaded. With a maximum capacity of 853 passengers, one of the A-380's selling points is that it will ease congestion at crowded airports.
But the GAO report says that in the United States, at least, that may not be true. "The size of the A-380 presents a safety challenge because most U.S. airports were not built to accommodate such a large aircraft," the GAO says.
The report points out that the air turbulence created by the plane's four engines, each with 70,000 pounds of thrust, leaves a wake "bigger than any other aircraft in service today." The "wake turbulence" requires increased separation from other planes on landing and takeoff. That, the report says, would effectively slow down airport operations.
The report says the plane's size and weight would also mean slower operations because of taxiway restrictions. And it says the size will also mean new challenges for fire and rescue teams, which will need new training and new equipment.
But the report acknowledges that U.S. airports confronted and overcame the same challenges of safety and wake turbulence when Boeing's 747 was introduced 30 years ago. And Boeing's new, bigger version of that plane, the 747-8, which is expected to enter service in 2010, will "be considered in the same category" as the A-380 and will also produce similar problems, the report says.
The first A-380 will enter commercial service in the fall, starting with Singapore Airlines, on routes outside the United States. The aircraft will not make its U.S. commercial debut until 2008. Asian and European airports, which will handle significantly larger numbers of the big Airbus, are well ahead of U.S. airports in making modifications to accommodate the plane.
"In complete fairness, the airplane is designed to increase capacity by decreasing frequency, making airports more efficient. The detriments here are very real," said ABC News aviation consultant John Nance.
The wake turbulence problem is a very serious concern. But you also have other airport problems." Those problems, says Nance, include moving 500 to 600 passengers aboard the plane in a short period of time, handling luggage in a timely way both on departure and arrival and fueling the A-380. The Airbus capacity is 81,890 gallons of fuel, compared to 57,285 for the 747-400 which is currently in use.
In winter, says Nance, a big concern will be deicing the super jumbo. "Airports will need much bigger deicing trucks with the ability to get up and over those big wings and with large capacity to make sure that by the time you deice one part of the play, the other doesn't need deicing again."
Nance believes all of the problems cited by the GAO can be overcome. "It will simply take money," he says. And maybe, Nance adds, "Airbus is right that the efficiencies are going to outweigh the costs." But that will be seen only once the plane is in commercial service.
London's Heathrow Airport, the GAO says, has spent $883 million on infrastructure improvements, almost as much as the $927 million 18 U.S. airports have spent.
The GAO says about 83 percent of those funds are being used to widen existing taxiways and runways, and in some cases relocate taxiways. In other cases, taxiways and bridges need to be reinforced to handle the plane's weight. Other infrastructure upgrades include changes at gates and terminals.
"Although these changes to airport infrastructure were driven by the introduction of the A-380," the report says, they "will also benefit current aircraft and other large aircraft that may be introduced." The GAO says airport operators also told them the cost of getting ready for the A-380 will likely be recaptured in the economic benefits of the new plane.
But, says the GAO in its 72-page report, "The airports also anticipate implementing some type of operating restrictions to safely accommodate the A-380. Specifically, all 18 U.S. airports we visited anticipated imposing some type of operating restrictions on the A-380 or on other aircraft that operate around the A-380."
The issue of how to handle the huge aircraft is also being studied by the Federal Aviation Administration, which may or may not impose its own operating restrictions sometime in the future.
One question the GAO report did not answer was what impact the A-380 would have on already strained airport capacity. The accounting arm of Congress said it was just too early to say.
Fourteen airlines have ordered 156 of the superjumbos. No U.S. passenger carrier has placed an order for the $300 million plane, which has faced severe production delays.