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Sun 5 Mar 2006 04:00 AM

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Scaling new heights

Airports and ground handlers throughout the world are preparing for the arrival of the mammoth A380.

|~||~||~|Thanks to orders from Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways, the Airbus A380 will be a common sight in Middle East skies. In fact, with a wingspan of nearly 80 metres and carrying approximately 555 passengers, it will be hard to miss.

Equally visible will be improvements on the ground. Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Jeddah are all gearing up to welcome the aircraft. Development projects are likewise in hand worldwide. From San Francisco to Paris, London Heathrow to Sydney, major hub airports are getting ready for the A380. Over sixty should have the requisite capability by 2010.

In Europe, Munich is already prepared. The Bavarian gateway was the first on the continent to achieve A380 clearance and will have two compliant gates in Terminal 2. Also in Germany, Frankfurt’s second terminal will initially have five A380 gates and there are plans to convert some Terminal 1 positions as well.

With a significant volume of transit traffic and a huge catchment area, the Star Alliance hub is vital to the long-term success of the aircraft. Lufthansa plans to base 15 A380s at Frankfurt by 2015. Other European A380 ports of call include Paris, Amsterdam, both Heathrow and Gatwick in London, and Rome.

Progress is similarly being made at gateways in North America. San Francisco, having opened a new international terminal in 2000, has five A380-able gates and work is being done on Terminals 1 and 4 at New York’s JFK International. Los Angeles is likely to be the crucial stop – a number of airlines including Singapore, Qantas, Virgin Atlantic, Korean and Malaysian are reported to have indicated it may feature on their A380 network. Work at the airport is ongoing. Miami, Toronto, Vancouver, Chicago and Denver are among those that will also roll out the red carpet.

In Asia-Pacific, the A380 will benefit from five gates at Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur and will also be a regular visitor to Suvarnabhumi (New Bangkok International), and Incheon, Seoul. With Singapore Airlines the launch customer, its home airport, Changi, is essential to the aircraft’s success. Eleven gates in Terminals 1 and 2 will welcome the Airbus giant and a further eight positions are being incorporated into the brand new Terminal 3. Other A380-ready airports will include Beijing and major Australian destinations.

Although airports will ideally upgrade to fully comply with ICAO Category F standards, improvements can involve mitigation measures to ensure safe operations, which, as IATA’s Günther Matschnigg, senior vice president, safety, operations & infrastructure, notes, are “always the number one priority.”

He reports that upgrades are “airline and site-specific” but work will generally include airside development, such as strengthening bridges and widening runways, and terminal adjustment – increasing gate and hold room sizes for example.

An interesting area of development will be the number of boarding bridges used to serve the aircraft. Through cabin design innovation, such as double-width interior stairs, turnaround time shouldn’t be unduly affected by either a two or three bridge configuration but while three bridges, including one serving the upper deck, is not an operational necessity, it is nevertheless a significant product differentiator.

Airports that have confirmed three bridge access include Doha, Dubai, Frankfurt, Paris, Suvarnabhumi and Sydney. Those serving the aircraft with two bridges (one upper deck) include Jeddah, London Gatwick and Heathrow and Amsterdam. A number of other hubs still have the situation under review.

“We are very happy with the preparations that airports are making to welcome the A380,” says Thomas Burger, Airbus’ A380 product manager. “The aircraft has already proved itself capable of operating at existing airports – our development aircraft have visited more than 20 to date for validation. This success is, of course, based on the extensive collaboration with the airport and ground handling community who shaped the aircraft with their requirements, thus minimising the need for infrastructure change and new equipment.”

Development can still be a costly and timely undertaking, however. David Gamper, director, administration, facilitation, safety & yechnical, Airports Council International, concurs that airports will be ready in time for service introduction at their particular destination but continues: “As to whether the costs are justified, all the airports concerned have been reviewing their options for modifying their airport, given the expected frequency of use by A380s.”

“This obviously affects the number of contact gates needed for the A380,” he continues. “It also affects whether the airfield has to be upgraded to full ICAO Code F standards, or whether operational restrictions can be accepted – for example while an A380 is taxiing, any parallel taxiway would be closed – or whether the country’s civil aviation authority, after performing aeronautical studies, will permit a “Modification of Standards”, as it is called in the U.S. Then they can work out the total cost of modification, which will go into the airport cost base, which is used to set airport charges.”

With funding generally less of a problem than in Europe and North America, airport modifications in the Middle East are arguably more dramatic than in any other region. Both Doha and Dubai have major new developments geared around the A380 while Abu Dhabi and Jeddah are also preparing for the behemoth of the skies.

Notes Burger: “In the Middle East specifically, we are privileged to have Emirates, Qatar and Etihad as A380 customers. The hub concept is a significant part of their development strategy and their home airports have development plans that have already set them on course to achieve world-class hub status.”

Doha International Airport and the Qatari Government announced a master plan for a new multi-billion dollar gateway in 2003. It will be built to the east of the current airport on a 2,200-hectare site with the first phase scheduled for completion in 2009 and a third and final phase ending around 2015. Initially, the new airport will feature two parallel runways and process nearly 12 million passengers per year. The terminal will have 24 contact gates in the first phase and accommodate up to six A380-800 super jumbos when fully developed. The complex will also include three top quality hotels.

Dubai is similarly investing in completely new facilities. The expansion programme includes construction of Terminal 3, Concourse 2 and Concourse 3, which will be a dedicated facility for Emirates. When completed, Dubai International Airport will have the capacity to handle close to 70 million passengers a year, a massive increase over its present design limit.

The A380 will benefit from five gates in Concourse 2 and 12 gates in Concourse 3. Because the project breaks new ground, all aprons, taxiways and infrastructure will be built with the new aircraft in mind. With no expense spared, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, president of the Department of Civil Aviation and chairman of the Emirates Group, has said he is looking to create nothing less than the most advanced aviation hub in the world.

Although comparable to current widebodies from the main deck down, ground services will be impacted by the A380. Airbus went to great pains to ensure close collaboration with the ground handling community during the design phase of the aircraft, and the most significant recommendations arising from the consultation period were a similar turnaround time to the Boeing 747 and minimal new ground handling equipment.

It seems the European airframe manufacturer has delivered. Airbus’s Burger notes that “90% of the equipment used to service the A380 is common with other widebody types,” with the design of the aircraft also producing a very efficient ramp layout.

Even so, the passenger version of the A380 is reliant on a couple of new pieces of ground handling equipment – a 70 tonne tow tractor and an upper deck catering vehicle – while the A380 freighter will need an upper deck cargo loader.

The tow tractor was a relatively simple undertaking. Although 50 tonne tractors are compatible under some circumstances, a 70 tonne is necessary during poor traction conditions or when the aircraft is at its Maximum Ramp Weight (MRW). Eight manufacturers have been involved in the process and the four meetings since December 2001 have resulted in products that are already available to the market.

The catering truck was a more complicated affair. Although lifts to the upper deck are standard, using the upper deck catering service door is a vital element in turnaround time, and it was essential trucks with the requisite capability be developed. Vehicles needed to extend over eight metres off the ground and then move horizontally to avoid contact with the wing.

According to Airbus, 15 manufacturers have been involved in
the catering vehicle working group, 13 of which are offering solutions. Nine prototypes will be available before entry into service and serial production has begun.

Wilfried Müller, Project Manager of one of the companies involved in the working group, DOLL Fahrzeugbau, says: “Our prototype is finished and has been tested on the A380 mock-up in Toulouse as well as on an actual A380 in Frankfurt. Independent inspectors have checked it meets all European requirements and have confirmed the high wind stability in a fully raised position.”

The DOLL catering truck, X-Cat L, has a longer and stronger single-scissor lift, enabling it to handle over fifty standard high-capacity trolleys. The front platform can then be moved laterally to reach the loading door. Everything is protected by a roof that extends right up to the fuselage.

Safety is paramount. The platform is open to the front and has windows in the sidewalls, allowing the operator a perfect view. In addition, a camera with cross-sights locks onto an identical cross on the wing of the A380, letting the driver know it is in position. A sensor registers even the slightest contact with the fuselage and prevents any further movement of the catering crate. Because all loading causes the fuselage to sink down gradually, sensors further help the hydraulic scissor by following this slow-motion movement.

Be it catering trucks or new terminals, the A380 has already had a huge impact on the aviation industry. With all the elements in place, the aircraft should produce much greater stand productivity for airports than comparable widebody aircraft – but whether it will be as productive for Airbus remains to be seen.||**||

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