One private jet to go and supersize it, please!

 - March 12, 2007, 7:46 AM

It’s really, really big, and as an executive transport, the giant Airbus A380–unveiled in Toulouse, France, last month– will be the biggest and most complex challenge ever to roll into an independent completion center hangar to be outfitted for executive or personal use.

It is the largest passenger aircraft ever built, with an mtow of about 600 tons,
and is capable of carrying more than 800 passengers in a single-class economy configuration. The 6,819 sq ft of floor space is about equal to that of a mini-mansion in one of New York City’s more exclusive suburbs. At $285 million (published price), it’s considerably more expensive than the house in Westchester, but you also get wings and four turbofan engines capable of delivering you and an extensive entourage to destinations nearly 9,000 miles away at better than 500 knots.

Some industry observers have wondered why anyone would need an airplane of this size as an executive/VIP transport. But the answer is simple: it’s there; “I want one”; and want is as much a motivator as need.

An Airbus spokesman noted that some potential customers might view the size of the A380 as a distinct advantage. “Many heads of state and royalty travel on state business with an extended family,” he explained, “not to mention a large staff and members of the media.”

At the unveiling, Airbus chief commercial officer John Leahy said the company had “a couple of prospects” for an executive/VIP version of the A380 before 9/11. Those potential customers have since dropped the idea, he added. But he believes that it is “inevitable” that someone will want such a variant.

If inevitable, it begs the question of who will do the job. And the truth is that the number of completion centers capable of handling such a mammoth project is small.
In Europe there is Jet Aviation in Basel, Switzerland; Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg, Germany; and EADS Sogerma Services in Merignac, France, which is a partner in Airbus Industrie, the consortium that manufactures the A380.

In the U.S., it should come as no surprise that most of the centers are in Texas, a place where “bigger” is the ultimate compliment. There is Associated Air Center at Dallas Love Field, Gore Design Completions in San Antonio and L-3 Communications Integrated Systems with facilities at Waco and Greenville. CompletionAir at East Alton, Ill., has done an executive 767, and v-p and general manager Mike Ward said the company might also bid on an A380.

Without exception, all the centers expressed enthusiasm about such a contract, and why not? The most conservative estimates place the value of an A380 completion on the far side of $150 million, and most figure it will come closer to $200 million “and probably more than that,” said one completion center executive. Such a contract would keep a completion center busy, and solvent, for at least 18 months and maybe as long as 24 months, depending on the complexity of the job.

A $200 Million Interior
Cost estimates for an executive A380 are based on the expectation that customers for the big jet will likely be heads of state, wealthy individuals or royalty, all of whom would view an executive/VIP version of the A380 as a personal statement as well as a business tool.

“The cost of the completion depends on the level of elegance, and it could be very elegant indeed,” said a source at Lufthansa Technik, the Hamburg, Germany-based completion, maintenance and service center that specializes in widebody executive/VIP interiors.

Asked if Gore Design Completions would bid on an A380 executive/VIP completion job, president and CEO Jerry Gore chuckled, “Ooooooh, yeah.”

Gore Design Completions has just opened a $12.5 million completion center capable of simultaneously accommodating a Boeing 747-400 and a 767-300. The hangar would be deep enough for an A380, but the overhead would be about 16 feet too low and the airplane’s 79-foot 2-inch tail–15 feet, 6 inches taller than the tail of a 747–would be left outside. A moot point, as the new hangar is also not wide enough for the A380’s massive 261.8-foot wingspan. Asked how he might solve the dilemma if his company won an A380 contract, Gore replied, “The first thing we’d do is start building a new hangar for it.”

The problem of hangar accommodation for a very large jet is one for which completion centers found a number of solutions when customers began asking for bids on executive/VIP 747s. Associated Air Center solved it with a portable, fabric-covered “doghouse” to enclose the tail. Another facility cut out a portion of the hangar roof and built its own version of the doghouse over the opening to cover the aircraft’s tail.

CompletionAir at St. Louis Regional Airport proffered the same solution as Gore. “With a contract that size, you could afford to build a new hangar.” In fact, said Ward, it would not surprise him to see a smaller completion center bid on the contract, figuring into the bid the cost of a hangar.

At Lufthansa Technik, where Lufthansa German Airlines 747s are regular visitors for maintenance, modifications and overhauls, the hangars were built specifically to house the big Boeing four-engine widebodies. A spokesman said the company has already begun “considering its options” to accommodate an A380 completion job–either by constructing a temporary doghouse to enclose the tail or constructing a new hangar.

Lufthansa German Airlines has already placed an order for 15 A380s, making the new hangar a more attractive option if the facility is to serve as the maintenance center for the airline’s A380 fleet. “If we win an A380 contract,” said a spokesman, “it won’t take long to solve the matter of a hangar.”

Heinz Aebi, senior v-p of marketing for Jet Aviation, said the Swiss company would have no difficulty fitting the airplane into a hangar by making a special housing for the tail. The company is currently working on a 747-400 for which it had to make a similar accommodation.

Centers with experience in outfitting the larger executive/VIP widebodies–Airbus A330s and A340s and Boeing 777s, 747s and 767s–may have an edge in bidding on an A380 interior. “It’s more than simply a matter of filling a larger space,” said Patrick Altuna, executive v-p of Associated Air Center.

Can Airports Support the Weight?
While any of these completion centers might be capable of outfitting an executive/VIP A380, there is still the question of whether the airports where they are located can accommodate the giant airplane.

Airbus expects the A380’s empty operating weight to be 610,680 pounds and its mtow to be 1,190,496 pounds (respectively, 110,979 pounds and 390,496 pounds more than a 747-400). And the wingspan is 261.8 ft (50.5 feet more than that of a 747-400).

Although it is a much larger airplane than Boeing’s heaviest airliner, said an Airbus spokesman, the A380 was designed to operate from any runway or taxiway capable of handling a Boeing 747-400. And he added that the “bogie” landing gear design results in comparable pavement loading.

The A380, says Airbus, will be certified for operations on runways 147.7 feet wide and “on any taxiway system prepared for the 777-300 or A340-600.” The balanced field length is expected to be 9,800 feet (sl, ISA+15).

The airports where the completion centers most likely to win an A380 contract are located can accommodate the airplane, but limits may be placed on the takeoff and landing weights.

The main runway at Hamburg Fuhlsbuttel International Airport, where Lufthansa Technik is located, is 7,615 feet long and 148 feet wide, which Lufthansa says could nevertheless handle an A380. The runway at Bale-Mulhouse International Airport in Basel, Switzerland–12,795 feet long and 197 feet wide–would easily accommodate an A380 with no restrictions.

In the U.S., the main runway at Love Field, home of Associated Air Center, is 8,880 feet long and 150 feet wide. A little short perhaps, but within limits for a lightened A380.

The main runway at Merignac Airport, near Bordeaux-based EADS Sogerma, is 10,171 feet long and 148 feet wide, adequate for the A380.

There’s no question whether the runway at Gore Design’s facilities at Kelly USA Airport in San Antonio can accommodate an A380. The main runway at the former Kelly Air Force Base is 11,500 feet long and 300 feet wide and is an alternate landing site for the U.S. Space Shuttle.

L-3 Communications Integrated Systems at Waco has done numerous executive/VIP widebody interiors, including a Boeing 777. The company has similar completion facilities at both Greenville (Majors Airfield, northeast of Dallas) and Waco (TSTC Airport). The runways at both fields are 150 feet wide and longer than 8,000 feet.
At this point, there are apparently no orders for an executive/VIP A380, and Airbus has said it “does not comment on future customers.”

Is there a market for an executive/VIP A380? Airbus is cautiously optimistic, and the fact is that large executive/VIP and head-of-state aircraft are not unusual. There are a “handful” of Airbus A340s doing service in those configurations.

And according to Boeing, there are two 777s, twenty-one 747s, eight 767s and fifteen 757s performing as executive/VIP transports. A Boeing spokesman said the company is already receiving inquiries about an executive/VIP version of its 787 (née 7E7), which is not scheduled for certification before 2008.

If someone does order an A380, the completion center will have plenty of time to plan. According to Airbus, the earliest delivery date for an order placed now for an A380 is in late 2009 or early 2010.

Challenges for A380 Completion

• Environmental control. Any design for an executive/VIP A380 will almost certainly require the creation of numerous compartments, such as bedrooms and galleys, that will alter the balance and flow of the existing environmental control system.

• Load distribution. The load distribution of an upper deck must be taken into consideration when installing heavy components such as showers and galleys.

• Cabin management. Because of the numerous zones on two levels, and the number of individual compartments, there will certainly
be more than one cabin management system for lighting, entertainment and cabin environment controls.

• Sudden cabin decompression. Numerous closed compartments vastly complicate the placement and size of blow-out panels in doors, floor and ceilings.

• Wiring harnesses. A typical executive/VIP 767 requires some 30 miles of cabin wiring. Wiring for an A380 may easily exceed 100 miles and far exceed that of a 767 in complexity.

• Flexing. During cabin compression and de-compression and in turbulence an aircraft undergoes considerable flexing. According to Gore, his company installed a 40-foot passageway in an executive/VIP 767 that required numerous slip-joints to accommodate nearly five inches of movement.

• Exterior paint. It’s a matter of who has a shop large enough, and that eliminates all of the independent completion centers. In fact, the only facility large enough to handle the exterior paint is the Airbus fabrication center in Hamburg, where two new paint hangars have been constructed expressly for the A380.