Every time Qantas lands one of its giant Airbus A380s at LAX, parts of the nation’s fourth-busiest airport come to a halt.
Service roads, taxiways and runways must be closed to airfield trucks, cars and other commercial aircraft as the world’s largest passenger plane -- with wings almost as long as a football field -- arrives, departs and taxis with an official escort of operations vehicles.
The plane is so immense that air traffic controllers give it priority so it doesn’t have to wait for takeoff at the end of the airport’s southern runways in cloudy or foggy weather because it can disrupt radio signals from the airport’s instrument landing system.
More than any other airliner, LAX officials say, the A380 requires special procedures because Los Angeles International Airport was not built to accommodate a plane of its size.
Despite occasional griping from airlines, LAX, Qantas, and Federal Aviation Administration officials say that A380 operations have gone fairly well since October, when the Australian carrier began service to Los Angeles from Melbourne and Sydney.
But air traffic controllers and LAX officials caution that as airlines put more A380s into service, they could hamper airport operations and delay other commercial flights if improvements to runways, taxiways and terminals are not made in the next few years. Based on Air Transport Assn. figures, every minute of delay for an airliner carrying 150 people costs the carrier and passengers an average total of $152, including the value of fuel, crew time, lost productivity and other expenses.
Air traffic controllers at LAX say the current procedures work because A380s have priority, there are only one or two planes a day and the airport isn’t as busy as it once was. Since 2000, the average number of daily takeoffs and landings has dropped from about 2,150 to 1,500 because of declines in air travel after 9/11, high aviation fuel prices last summer and the nation’s sagging economy.
“The whole process is cumbersome and will cause problems down the road,” said air traffic controller Mike Foote, a local representative of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn. “If we go back to pre- recession operations levels, the situation would be untenable. There would be gridlock.”
Controllers say the potential for delay could increase dramatically with the addition of four or five A380 flights a day.
Airbus officials disagree. Years were spent developing adequate procedures, they say, and operational improvements have occurred as airports have become accustomed to the airplane. If runways, taxiways and service roads have to be closed, it is only for “a very short time,” said Dan Cohen-Nir, program manager for Airbus North America Holdings Inc.
“The good news is that there’s been a long-standing collaboration between Airbus, air traffic control, the FAA and airport officials,” Cohen-Nir said. “It is a challenge. LAX was designed before the [Boeing 747 jumbo jet]. In some places, LAX is substandard for even those aircraft.”
Qantas flies an A380 into LAX on Mondays through Fridays, though there are exceptions to the schedule. A May 2008 study by Los Angeles World Airports indicated that Qantas and five other international carriers wanted to put at least 10 A380s into service at LAX by 2012, but an unprecedented downturn in the airline industry and a deepening global recession could derail those plans.
LAX “has been plain fantastic in this whole thing,” said Roger Lindeman, a Qantas vice president in charge of airport operations in the United States, Canada, and South America. “These planes are the future of long-haul aviation. Airports need to be ready for them.”
The A380 is a big plane -- a destination in itself, Lindeman says. The wingspan is about 262 feet, and the tail is 80 feet high. The maximum takeoff weight is 1.2 million pounds. The double-deck design can carry 450 to 853 passengers and 50% more cargo than most other commercial aircraft.
In contrast, a Boeing 747-400 can seat 416 to 660 people. The wingspan is 211 feet, and the tail is 64 feet high. The maximum takeoff weight is about 875,000 pounds. Next to the bulky Airbus, the 747 looks streamlined.
So far, about a dozen airports in North America have had an interest in the A380, but only two have accepted the plane -- John F. Kennedy International in New York and LAX. San Francisco International Airport, which was the stage for a Qantas demonstration flight last week, is preparing to begin A380 operations.
About $100 million has been spent at LAX to accommodate the next generation of large aircraft, including the A380, Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the 747-8. About $50 million has been spent for taxiway improvements and another $50 million for two A380 gates -- one at each end of the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
But unlike at JFK and San Francisco, getting the plane into and out of LAX is governed by a long list of special procedures, such as an entourage of four or five airport vehicles that set up temporary roadblocks as the aircraft taxis.
“The plane creates issues we have to deal with,” said Jeff Cunnyngham, the FAA operations supervisor at LAX. “Whenever an A380 is moving, we put on extra people to watch the process. We make sure the tower is fully staffed.”
If an A380 flies into or out of the airport, aircraft behind it must maintain a longer distance because of strong wake turbulence, swirling air that can cause a trailing plane to go out of control. Heavy jets like a 747 must stay at least six miles away, while light planes must maintain a distance of 10 miles.
LAX operates with four parallel runways that are intersected by taxiways leading to the terminals. When an A380 is moving along one taxiway toward the south runway complex, landings and departures on the inner runway must stop briefly because one of the wings intrudes into the runway’s safety zone, an area that must remain clear of obstacles. A parallel service road must be closed as well, causing trucks and cars to back up as the aircraft lumbers to the Bradley terminal. Similarly, a service road must be closed if an A380 is operating on the airport’s northern runway complex. On the north side, the airport has received FAA permission to land the A380 on its 150-foot-wide runways. Normally, the FAA requires a width of 200 feet for a plane that size.
When the A380 taxis from its gate on the south side of the Bradley terminal to its maintenance area for routine servicing on the north side of LAX, it must use one of the airport’s two north-south taxiways, which are next to each other. The wings are so wide that aircraft are prohibited from using the other taxiway until the A380 passes.
Cunnyngham estimates that runway closures can last three to five minutes, while road closures last five to 10 minutes.
In addition, FAA procedures state than when an A380 is stopped on certain taxiways, nearby runways must be closed to departures and arrivals because its 80-foot tail juts into an area that must remain free of obstacles. Also, air traffic controllers say that when the plane lands or takes off, taxiways between runways must remain clear of other aircraft because the wings jut into safety zones.
“For the most part, the A380 does not create many problems when it arrives and departs in the off-peak hours, but it could create delays if it starts operating in significant numbers,” said Bruce W. Kinsler, a former FAA air traffic control specialist who has studied the effects of A380s and other large commercial aircraft on airports.
Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, says the A380 underscores the need to proceed with key elements of the LAX modernization plan or risk losing flights to other airports. The projects include new gates at the Bradley terminal, a wider cross-field taxiway and a mid-field concourse that would eliminate the need to bus international travelers from remote gates to the main customs and immigration facility.
A controversial proposal to reconfigure the north runway complex could increase the distances between taxiways, two runways and service roads. The plan, which is being studied, calls for moving the outboard runway 300 feet to the north to make room for a center taxiway.
“If we are delayed on the Bradley gates and the cross-field taxiway, we would have a fairly significant congestion issue,” Lindsey said. “We would end up having the A380s at the remote gates -- an awful experience for travelers.”