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AIRBUS A380, YOU ARE CLEAR TO LAND


titlejet.jpg Evolutionary but not Revolutionary -- with a really big and flashy tail fin. Yesterday, the Airbus A380 touched down in Los Angeles for the first time. PJM watched it roll in across the tarmac. An Exclusive Report to PJM by Frank Martin

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March 20, 2007 - 10:31 am

“Get up next to the fence and don’t move,” was the command. It wasn’t personal; it was just early morning crowd maintenance. It was one person who was trying to check-in a gaggle of press and media types who gathered at the appointed place in Parking lot B far out on the fringes of LAX. It wasn’t personal, but it sure got my attention. Once the savage media beast was as tamed as it could be we were allowed to board the bus to Imperial terminal at the airport.

The atmosphere on the bus is subdued. Some reporters brought their teenage sons along first landing in Los Angeles of the first significantly new commercial aircraft to be made in a long time. Aviation enthusiasts in the group are easily detected by their headgear (DC10 hats, Lockheeed and yours truly, North American), off-the-shelf reporters are also easily detected by their use of sport coats over Levis; which never fools anyone and looks goofy no matter where you are.

We pull up to Imperial terminal and go through a second check of documentation just in case somebody jumped on the bus when it was moving. I’m approved again and get my badge, “FRANK MARTIN – MEDIA”. I’m embarrassed and geekily proud at the same time. I hope I don’t show too much of my emotion and blow my cover as a complete bounder in the exalted ranks of “MEDIA”.

In line, I spend some time talking to a few of the veteran reporters. It seems that many of them only know about aircraft from the business class section. The DC-10 guy and myself take the “sport coats” through the background of the Airbus A380, catching them up on the significance of the aircraft. Meanwhile the line snakes up to the real TSA security check.

Security is tight. Real tight. I mean, “first flying day after September 11th tight.” There’s a lot riding on today’s landing and demonstration of the A380, and this particular group of TSA officers has no intention of screwing anything up. There was a complete brigade of TSA officer on site. I don’t want to give away too much of the security procedures that were in place for obvious reasons, but lets just say that it was barely an inch from being a body cavity search and leave it at that.

Finally, I’m behind the secure barrier in the ‘sanitized’ section. It’s just me and 150 “MEDIA” types and the kids from Orville Wright middle school. On this side of the security barrier, were all equals, except that those of us marked “MEDIA” instead of “GUEST” get to go to even more places.

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The plane that made today possible

The flight line at the Imperial Terminal has a vintage Douglas DC-3 on display from the Airport Museum that is serving as the centerpiece for the Airbus A380 display. It’s sad to see the old girl sitting out of the ramp, when the new kid in town is showing up and showing off. The Douglas DC-3 made modern commercial aviation into the globe-trotting industry that it is. Yet in this setting, it looks so ancient it might as well be an exhibit brought in from the La Brea Tar Pits

“MEDIA” types quickly break up into two groups to perform their functions. I might be having to the time of my life, but to most of the folks in the room this is very much just another unremarkable Monday morning at work. Photographers try to find the best place for the bests shot in a fog of hangover and disinterest. Reporters and the other “face people” gather and begin doing the interviews with a few of the spokespeople that have been gathered for the event.

One photographer asks me where I think the better location would be, I point out that where we were standing will give a view of the A380 that overlooks two Boeing 747′s sitting just behind in the Quantas Air Cargo Terminal next door, since to me that would seem to be “subtext of the day.” I suggest that might be a good shot. He agrees, sets up and 12 more cameramen follow in quick order, shoulder to shoulder setting up cameras with one hand while balancing a coffee cup in the other. Apparently, photographers travel in packs and have a sort of “hive mind” and communicate via mental telepathy. I make a mental note not to play poker with any of these folks.

Getting Set

In the early morning hours, airport flight lines are magical places. This particular morning and this particular flight line were particularly magical since it marked the first arrival of an all-new aircraft. An aircraft that is seemingly custom made for the LAX Pacific Rim market

A low fog hangs in the sky, which is typical of springtime in Southern California. It is sure to burn off later in the afternoon but is just enough to make out of towners think it’s actually going to rain. The locals just laugh because they know that there’s hardly enough moisture in these clouds to wet the windshield of their car and justify even a single swipe of the wipers.

I watch the ground crews for clues as to the arrival time. Movement means “its close” and “get ready.” Another good clue is the 15 media helicopters that have begun to take position at various locations in the airspace.

The low level fog obscures the approach to the airport, meaning that we can’t really see the aircraft until it’s over the end of the runway, Suddenly, one of the reporters shouts “THERE IT IS!” at a descending blue shape.

“Blue? It’s supposed to be white in Airbus colors,” I say to no one in particular. “That’s not right,” goes the collective head nod of photographers and myself.

Sure enough a few seconds the plane’s revealed as a Boeing 747 for United.

“BOOOOOO”! Shout the reporters behind us. No one came here today to see a 747.

Incoming

Then a couple of minutes later, a white aircraft shape descends from the bottom of the clouds.

This is it. The Airbus 380, departed from Toulouse, France just 14 hours earlier.

“THERE IT IS!” goes the same voice that earlier misidentified the 747. Loud clapping is heard from all of us. It’s a great moment. Touchdown is a couple of minutes early and the ground crew begins to start scurry about. The first thing that strikes me about the A380 on approach is how large the tail is. Other than that, it doesn’t look particularly big, which is a surprise.

A long taxi over to the Imperial Terminal from the north side of the Airport, and there it is. Again, it’s the tail that gives it away.

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The Mother of All Tailfins

Finally locked in her chocks, the A380 has arrived. Pilots wave to the crowds below and the normally jaded reporters clap loudly for the crew. Reporters and various members of the press take advantage of the time to take their personal photographs of the big event. Everyone walked in jaded, but now everyone is all smiles. It’s as if they’d just gotten their picture taken with a big celebrity. It shocks me to notice that the photographers carry their own personal pocket cameras for just such occasions. I ask one of them about it ” Oh, these? Well these are for me” he said back with the smile of a kid with a new set of play dough.

A slow migration begins to the open-air podium where the Mayor of Los Angeles and other assembled dignitaries will meet at the podium and numb everyone with the canned content of their carefully prepared speeches.

Mayor Villaraigosa takes the stage, takes great pains to discuss the “eco-friendly” aspects of the giant aircraft. He also points out the attendant councilman and women from the neighborhoods under the A380′s flight path. One Smart Politician, the Mayor is…

The Airbus representative takes great pains to thank various folks, then launches into a sales pitch. Again, the “eco-friendly” nature of the giant aircraft gleams and spins at the center of his speech. It’s the “Ask me about my grandchildren” approach to modern politics.

Wally Mariani of Quantas gives the best speech of the day because he just does it off the cuff. Mariani’s sold on the A380 and wants you to be too. Wally Mariani is the best thing to ever happen to Airbus. Mariani makes even cynical little old me happy. I hope Boeing can borrow him when their turn comes.

Other assembled dignitaries emit general congratulations to the flight crew. Recognition is then sent out to Mr. Stephen Hazy, who is sitting in the audience. He takes a bow and promptly disappears as if by magic. As the CEO of ILFC (International Lease Finance Corporation) he controls a tremendous part of commercial aviation.

The group of dignitaries turns and goes up the red carpet (natch!) to visit the aircraft. The Mayor sticks his head out of the cockpit window with a “thumbs up” scene. Cameras click and roll. (Smart politician, the Mayor is.) Orange safety cones and airport police surround the aircraft in a great circle.

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Words from the sponsors

After a few minutes, “MEDIA” folks like myself are allowed to do “the walkaround”. It’s a big aircraft, so it’s a big walkaround. I notice the Aircraft Registration “F-WWOW” and laugh.

As I complete the first circuit, I notice a female police officer. I ask her ” Just another day at work, right?” “You betcha” she says; ” more people, but the same thing as the day before. It just goes on and on” She this under her breath, totally oblivious to the significance of the day.

The aircraft in the LAX show differs from the one landing the same day in New York, as it’s not outfitted for use as a full aircraft. This aircraft only has 50 seats inside. The New York aircraft is intended to fly a full load of passengers as part of its flight. This aircraft is just for the Airport and for the purposes of “Showing the flag.” But I’m not the slightest bit disappointed. As a pilot, I know that every seat that’s not in the “pointy end” is just an unfortunate compromise, and I’ve always been underwhelmed by Aircraft interiors that weren’t in the cockpit.

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Not as big as expected, but big just the same.

The A380 is not as big as I expected. That’s not to say that I think it’s insignificant by any means, it’s just that it makes good use of its “footprint” and doesn’t give you a sense of being overwhelmed. The vertical tail is the only immediate indication of a severe change of scale between the B747 and the A380. As far as the upper deck, if you’ve been on a 747 and gone into the upper deck, it’s like that, only it goes for the length of the aircraft. It doesn’t feel like a second deck, and you are unaware of the other deck until you think about it for a second.

I’m sure that there will be some changes to Airport Terminals to be able to accommodate 500+ passengers trying to enter or depart from this aircraft from many of the already undersized terminals that I’ve seen and experienced around the country and the world. I also note that none of the carriers seems to still be using the “800 passengers” that was originally used to justify the A380 program at its start. They all seem to have scaled back to somewhere in the range of the high 500′s.

It’s not the end of the world that we might see some effort to upgrade terminals. If the A380 forces the issue, then I’m all for it.

I don’t see how runways would be affected at all, given the nature of the landing gear (two mains on the fuselage, followed directly in parallel by a second set of mains on the wings). I don’t think this aircraft will have much utility in the Domestic US routes, but I do think that it will do very well for long haul airlines like Quantas, a carrier for which the A380 seems to be tailor made.

The Airbus A380 is a tremendous piece of technology and engineering. It is also a tremendous gamble on the part of its manufacturer. The truth of it is, no matter how much we might guess or try to predict the future for the A380, we will just have to wait and see if the gamble that Airbus made was a good bet or not. No matter how much anyone puts their spin on it the market will have its say.

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Evolutionary. And it’s “eco-friendly!

The Airbus A380 is an evolutionary aircraft, not a revolutionary aircraft. Its gamble is that “Bulk” will eventually win the day in terms gaining total orders from its competitors. On the other hand, Boeing has placed its money on an entirely different set of numbers. Its entry in the race for “Airline dollars” is not towards solving for “bulk”, but towards “Specialization” and “Efficiency”. Boeing listened to its customers and found that there was little if any demand for “bulk”, but that there was a great deal of demand for “specialization” and “efficiency”. Boeing has chosen to make, not an evolutionary aircraft, but a revolutionary aircraft in response.

It is also a tremendous risk and it will be some time before we see how that gamble pays off as well. We shall soon see the Boeing 787, but today is the Airbus A380′s day. And it was a very good day indeed.

A380 Facts

The A380 list price is $319 million dollars.

The A380 burns 80 miles per gallon of fuel – per seat.

The A380 has an acoustic signature that is 50% that of a B747-400.

The A380 Vertical fin is larger than the wing of an Airbus A320.

There are 156 orders from 14 customers; the largest order is from Emirates Airlines (40).
Quantas, which is hosting this session at LAX is expected to order 20 A380′s
Singapore airlines will be bringing a single A380 into service in October 2007.


Frank Martin blogs at Varifrank. There he says,
“I’m an airplane freak from way back. As a kid I probably made every aircraft in 1/72 scale that existed in kit form. The entire ‘Battle of Britain’ was fought in minature over my head with model aircraft that were hung from the ceiling. If you’ve ever seen the model plane collection at the Chino Air Museum, that was pretty much my bedroom as a kid. I’m a pilot and a real life airplane builder as well. My dad used to say that the only reason I worked anywhere was to get enough money to go flying and he wasnt totally wrong. Where most men dream at night of swimsuit models of questionable moral values, I dream of doing Immelmans in a Spitfire or landing on a carrier deck, or just watching the landscape go by from the cockpit window. I have on occasion traveled across three states just to see an obscure one-of-a-kind aircraft( the douglas skyshark – idaho. been there – done that… ) I willingly confess, It’s an obsession. Fly a T-6 over my house at any hour of the day and I’m likely to come running out of the door like a kid chasing after an ice cream truck.” – Captain Ahab Meets the White Whale

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