Making way for a MONSTER: Airport to dish out millions to accommodate Airbus A380

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The 7,700 acres that are Indianapolis International Airport may soon look like the city squashed by Godzilla-when big, bad A380 comes to town. And it is likely to cost tens of millions of dollars to keep the beast happy.

The A380 is the Airbus Industrie superjumbo jet. Airport managers want to start crunching-er, make that estimating-what it will cost to accommodate the world’s biggest airliner.

They plan to ask the Indianapolis Airport Authority board for $200,000 from the 2006 airport budget to hire a consulting firm to study the existing footprint of runways and taxiways.

Planners say they’re not sure what A380 accommodations will cost until they know exactly what work needs to be done. But in a 2001 survey of 14 airports by the General Accounting Office, it was estimated Indianapolis would need to spend $66 million to accommodate the “new, very large aircraft” segment such as the A380.

“We know that there will be a need for some modifications. Two of the major issues are the turning radius of the aircraft and, because of the wings, the outboard engines might extend beyond the width of the taxiways,” said Dennis Rosebrough, spokesman for airport management firm BAA Indianapolis.

If those engines hang over grassy areas, they could be damaged by ingesting grass, rocks or critters.

Airfield improvements for the A380 are tentatively scheduled for 2007-2009, under the airport’s proposed 10-year capital plan. The estimated cost is $16 million, although planners say that’s more of a “placeholder” number that was penciled in, pending the outcome of the study.

Generally, airfield improvements are funded by federal grants.

The A380 is large enough to intimidate like Godzilla.

Its wings are 50 feet wider than a Boeing 747’s. It’s 7-1/2 feet longer, 16 feet taller and nearly 300,000 pounds heavier than the U.S. plane that’s ruled the skies since the late 1960s.

In January, Memphis-based FedEx said it would be the first to take delivery of the cargo-version of the double-decker A380, in 2008. It plans by 2011 to have a fleet of 10, which will replace its MD-11 freighters.

FedEx intends to fly the European-built plane between Asia and its U.S. hubs, of which Indianapolis is second-largest, behind Memphis.

Whatever FedEx’s timetable, Indianapolis International needs to plan for the A380 if only because it is a primary diversion airport for Chicago O’Hare, which handles thousands of international passenger flights. A significant chunk of those will likely be flown using A380s.

“We could easily have a Lufthansa A380 diverted here,” Rosebrough said of the German airline that flies through O’Hare and is buying several of the super jumbos.

If that happens, the A380 would fit at the midfield airport terminal when it opens in 2008, said midfield project manager John Kish. “Fit” is a loose term in this case; it would take a while to unload A380 passengers because only one jet bridge would be available under current midfield plans. The A380s will be able to dock to three jet bridges to quickly unload their 550-650 passengers, depending on the version. The largest 747, which rarely makes an appearance in Indianapolis, seats 525 people.

“We didn’t configure anything differently to handle 500 people,” Kish said.

The reason: Indianapolis is likely too small a city to lure direct international flights or others using something as large as the A380.

Airport planners also are trying to watch costs, with the $1 billion midfield terminal now projected to cost some $25 million more than anticipated three years ago, thanks to rising security and other costs.

“If somebody actually committed to A380 passenger service here, we’d probably add a new wing out the building with jet bridges specifically designed for the A380,” Kish said.

“Wingspan isn’t much more than the 747. The difference is where the engines are. That’s why it’s an airfield problem, generally,” he said.

The A380 is the first aircraft to fall under the Federal Aviation Administration’s “design group VI” designation that sets a standard of 200-foot-wide runways and taxiways a minimum of 100 feet wide, according to a report by Kansas City-based aviation consulting firm Burns & McDonnell.

Indianapolis is built to meet the design group V capabilities that can accommodate a 747-400, with 150-foot-wide runways and 75- to 100-foot-wide taxiways.

Burns & McDonnell said many airports might be able to handle the A380 without complete renovation of their fields by marginally widening taxiways and increasing the radius of paved intersections.

The GAO survey in 2001 put the total cost of modifying the 14 major U.S. airports, including Indianapolis, at $2 billion.

Airbus responded by saying it believes airports overstated the cost, which it puts at $520 million.

“The costs … appear to us to be somewhat higher than reasonable,” Airbus said of the estimates for Orlando and Indianapolis in a response to the GAO study. “We have no basis for affirming the validity of the $66 million cost estimate given for IND [Indianapolis].”

Rosebrough said Indianapolis has paved shoulders that extend 15 to 30 feet beyond the airport’s 150-foot-wide runways. That could ease the need to make changes. “It depends on what the FAA requirements are.”

Airbus and Boeing have two distinctly dissimilar outlooks for future aircraft demand.

By producing the A380, the European consortium that is Airbus says it is fulfilling the need for a more economical jumbo jet to ferry passengers between major hubs, particularly between continents.

Wresting the largest airliner title from Boeing and the United States also reinforces a swelling sense of European pride over having already garnered more orders worldwide for commercial aircraft than Boeing.

But critics wonder if Airbus will be able to sell enough planes anytime soon to offset its development costs and make a profit on the behemoth.

In contrast, Chicago-based Boeing sees the future in 200- to 300-seat aircraft that can more efficiently service shorter, pointto-point routes rather than major hubs. The 787 uses advanced composites, improved aerodynamics and ultra-efficient engines to reduce fuel and operating costs. It will replace the venerable Boeing 757s and 767s.

Boeing hasn’t quite written off the super jumbo. It vacillates on whether to produce a more-efficient version of the 747. Meanwhile, Airbus is trying to check Boeing’s 787 with an overhauled version of one of its existing airliners.

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