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The Airbus A380: How it's influencing airport design

April 08, 2016

The world’s largest commercial aircraft is pushing airports to adapt their infrastructure and operations

On January 1, 1914, pilot Tony Jannus and his paying passenger, Abram C. Pheil, flew from St. Petersburg, Florida, to nearby Tampa. Distance: 21 miles (33.8 kilometers). Flight time: 23 minutes. Average flying altitude: 5 feet (1.5 meters). Ticket price: $400—Pheil’s winning bid in an auction. The aircraft was a two-seated Benoist XIV, one of only two ever built. Owned and operated by the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, the open cockpit biplane with floats was designed to carry passengers and cargo between water ports. 

Why does this matter? Because the two men made history that day, completing the first-ever scheduled commercial flight.

Fast forward 102 years. You can now fly 8,578 miles (13,805 kilometers) non-stop from Dallas, Texas, to Sydney, Australia, on Qantas Airlines in the lap of luxury in the massive Airbus-A380, the latest to lay claim as the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft. It’s a 17-hour flight, so bring a good book (or two)!

A Qantas A380 taking off (image: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

With a wingspan of 79.5 meters (261 feet—almost the length of a football field) and a maximum takeoff weight of 545,000 kilograms (1.2 million pounds), the impacts of this double-decker, 555-passenger aircraft are significant to airports proposing to provide scheduled A380 service. Such airports must have:

  • Longer and wider runways (200 feet wide, compared to 150 for the Boeing 747)
  • Wider taxiways
  • Larger hold rooms and amenities for passengers
  • Enhancements to baggage systems
  • More gate space
  • Dual passenger boarding bridges

That’s not all. Airports must allow 90 minutes for passenger boarding. Runway signage must be shifted outward to avoid jet blast from dislodging lighted runway sign panels during takeoff. There must be lateral separation between operating A380 aircraft and other aircraft, service vehicles, and ground crews. And because the A380’s jet blast contours exceed those of other wide-body aircraft, further considerations must be made to ensure safe working and operating conditions.

Many airports are working to adapt to changes like the A380, but the costs can be high. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, for example, has spent what could add up to an estimated $175 million dollars or more on airfield infrastructure upgrades alone in order to accommodate the A380. This does not include the millions of dollars already spent on terminal enhancements by the airline tenants, with more to follow.

But it’s worth the investment for airports. As larger aircraft have done throughout history, the A380 provides more efficiencies and conveniences in meeting the growing demands of the consumers and free enterprise. That’s why numerous airports are planning new terminals or large terminal expansions to accommodate the expanding global market as well as the A380 and other future Group VI aircraft.

Sixteen airports in the US and Canada currently have or can accommodate scheduled A380 service, with more airports planning to open their doors for service in the years ahead. Current airports include:

  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Los Angeles International Airport
  • Las Vegas – McCarren International Airport
  • Denver International Airport
  • Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport
  • Houston – George Bush Intercontinental Airport
  • Chicago O’Hare International Airport
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • Miami International Airport
  • Orlando International Airport
  • Washington-Dulles International Airport
  • New York – John F. Kennedy International Airport
  • Boston – Logan International Airport
  • Montréal – Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport
  • Toronto – Lester B. Pearson International Airport
  • Vancouver International Airport

So the next time you’re in one of these airports, keep an eye out for the A380. They are impressive to see, even from the window of a terminal building. And if you prefer to see a Benoist XIV, you can visit a full-size replica at the St. Petersburg Museum of History in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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