As it lumbers in for a landing at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday morning, the world's largest passenger jet will make its West Coast debut in what could be the biggest spectacle at the facility in more than three decades.
Officials expect thousands of onlookers to line airport fences to see the Airbus A380, an eight-story-high behemoth with a double-decked cabin and a wingspan nearly the length of a football field.
"We're planning for the largest turnout since the Concorde came in 1974," said Paul Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for Los Angeles World Airports. "This could be huge, and we're doing everything possible to be ready."
Southern California already is experiencing an uplift from the massive jet: More than 100 area suppliers contributed to the aircraft's construction, pumping $1.5 billion into the region's economy since 2003.
Los Angeles fought to host this pivotal moment in U.S. aviation history. Despite having promised to bring the A380 to LAX first if improvements were made at the airport, Airbus announced earlier this year plans to land the jumbo jet in New York instead. LAX officials sent a strongly worded letter to company executives in Toulouse, France, and Airbus relented just three weeks ago.
So at 9:30 a.m., one of two inaugural U.S. test flights is scheduled to touch down at LAX from Toulouse, about the same time a second aircraft will land at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport from Frankfurt, Germany.
About 550 of Lufthansa's frequent fliers, along with reporters and news crews, will be aboard the New York flight. Several dozen technicians will arrive on the LAX test jet, which will carry primarily instrumentation and water-filled tanks designed to adjust the aircraft's center of gravity.
But beyond the short-term buzz generated by the A380's arrival is the question of what mark the jet ultimately will make on aviation history.
Airlines say that when they start to fly the 555-seat jet commercially in the next few years, it will allow them to carry more passengers per trip, lowering costs. The super jumbo jet also could help space-constrained airports, including LAX, by allowing carriers to combine several flights into one.
Even so, the A380 is not expected to transform the industry the way its predecessor, Boeing Co.'s venerable 747, did when it arrived in 1970 and finally helped make flying affordable for the masses. Not enough A380s have been sold so far to fuel this kind of change, analysts say.
"It's not going to be a revolution; it's going to be an evolution," said Bob van der Linden, chairman of the aeronautics division at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "You and I, and everybody else who flies, will determine whether this airplane is a hit or a flop."
To be sure, the A380, which is about 30% larger than Boeing's 747, is considered by many to be an engineering marvel. But it doesn't represent change on the scale its older cousin did. When the 747 came into service in the early 1970s, it was 2 1/2 times larger than the airplane it replaced.
There are some similarities between the flying giants. Skeptics contended that there wasn't a market for the 747 either, and the plane didn't sell well in the beginning. Airports said they wouldn't be able to wedge its signature hump into their facilities. To date, Boeing has sold 1,500 747s. Airbus has orders for 156 A380s.
But the 21st century air travel market is different from that of the early 1970s. More people are flying than ever, and they want frequent, nonstop routes between many cities. Boeing — Airbus' main rival — is betting that because of this, airlines will favor smaller, more efficient jets that can bypass larger hubs. Airbus, on the other hand, believes there is a strong market for new super jumbo jets that will patronize these hub airports.
The A380 flights to the U.S. are a way for Airbus to burnish its image after wiring problems caused a two-year delay in deliveries and led to the resignation of top executives and layoffs of 10,000 workers. In the U.S., Airbus' woes helped Boeing sell more planes, including an updated version of the 747 that Airbus had hoped would fade away when it introduced the A380. Boeing sold a record number of airplanes last year and surpassed Airbus in orders for the first time since 2000.
The ongoing dogfight between the U.S. and European plane makers aside, Airbus officials say the A380 will benefit Los Angeles economically because seven carriers at LAX have ordered the massive jet. The airport is expected to serve more A380s than any other U.S. facility because of its status as the country's largest gateway to the Pacific Rim.
"It's almost like the A380 was specifically designed for Los Angeles," said Allan McArtor, chairman of Airbus North America. "Los Angeles is an airport that is constrained by its boundaries — in a community that is very environmentally sensitive to both emissions and noise — and there's a need to be more efficient with respect to aircraft movements."
The A380 makes half the noise of a 747, produces fewer emissions and is more fuel efficient, Airbus says. The aircraft will offer airlines a 20% savings per seat over a 747-400, McArtor added. What's less clear is how full the flights will need to be to generate those savings, and whether airlines will pass them on to consumers.
Passengers could see discounted fares or little or no increase in current ticket prices, said Wally Mariani, a senior executive vice president at Qantas Airways, which plans to fly the A380 commercially to LAX next year.
Qantas also will help the aircraft maker and airport officials test the jet's compatibility with airfield layout, terminal gate docking and ground handling services.
Using passengers on the New York flight, Lufthansa will test boarding and unloading procedures as well as catering and baggage handling.
Los Angeles' airport agency ultimately plans to spend $121 million to prepare for the A380. It already has written checks for half that amount to improve runway and taxiway intersections, and for a $9-million double-bridge gate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, where the plane will park for Monday's tests.
Officials liken the A380's visit to the last aircraft debut at LAX, by the supersonic Concorde, which landed in October 1974 after flying from Anchorage in 2 hours, 35 minutes.
The visit attracted tens of thousands of spectators. Motorists on Imperial Highway and Century Boulevard stopped in the middle of the street and crooked their necks to gawk.
Over the last three weeks, airport officials have worked overtime to prepare for the A380's arrival, devoting hours to meetings about where pedestrians should stand, what streets to shut down and how to provide security and traffic control. They suggest spectators arrive as early as 5 a.m. Monday to get a spot to watch the jet, which is scheduled to arrive on LAX' s northernmost runway.
Several locations near the intersection of Sepulveda and Lincoln boulevards are considered prime viewing areas. Officials plan to shut down only Northside Parkway, but crowds and traffic could necessitate closing Lincoln and Westchester Parkway for safety reasons.
After landing, the plane will taxi to the Imperial Terminal on the airport's south side, where it will be parked for welcoming ceremonies. The public should be able to glimpse the plane at the Imperial Terminal from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday from high points in El Segundo along the airport's boundary.
The jet is scheduled to leave LAX around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, using a south runway. Spectators may see it overhead by parking at Dockweiler State Beach.
"The sheer size of it is something that you remember," said Qantas' Mariani. "This will give us all these opportunities to show the A380 off."
Times staff writer Peter Pae contributed to this report.
A touchdown for LAX
The world's largest passenger plane is scheduled to arrive Monday morning. The public cannot approach the plane but can watch its arrival and departure. Officials suggest that spectators arrive as early as 5 a.m. Here are some prime viewing areas and public parking lots. Tune to LAX radio, 530 AM, for live parking and traffic updates.
Airbus 380 landing schedule
1. 9:30 a.m. Monday A380 lands and moves to airport's southern edge.
2. 10:15 a.m. Pilot descends stairs for 10:30 a.m. arrival ceremony.
3. 2 p.m. The plane moves to a specially modified gate.
4. 7:15 to 7:45 p.m. Tuesday A380 departs.
Jumbo jet comparison
Length: 239 ft., 3 in.
Height: 79 ft., 7 in.
Wingspan: 261 ft., 8 in.
Maximum takeoff wt.: 1,235,000 lbs.
Range: 8,000 nautical miles
Fuselage cross section
23 ft., 5 in.
Length: 231 ft., 10 in.
Height: 63 ft., 8 in.
Wingspan: 211 ft., 5 in.
Maximum takeoff wt.: 910,000 lbs.
Range: 7,670 nautical miles
Fuselage cross section
21 ft., 4 in.
Sources: Boeing Co., Airbus, LAPD, Los Angeles World Airports, Times reporting, ESRICopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times