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Giant plane could be a giant pain for airports

While the world's largest commercial airliner is scheduled to take to the skies next year, the biggest stumbling block might be finding a place to land.

The giant Airbus A380, which European manufacturers say will change the face of world aviation, was unveiled with theatrical ceremony in France a few weeks ago. It has drawn rave reviews -- and manufacturing orders -- by some, but skepticism by others.

Its statistics are impressive. Priced at about $290 million, the A380 is designed to carry a minimum of 550 passengers, with room for expansion to nearly 900. The plane has a two-story and three-seating-class configuration, with a wingspan of 262 feet. Its tail soars seven stories into the air.

It's designed to fly nonstop for roughly 18 hours to and from many of the major cities in the world that can't be reached now in a single flight.

The Airbus is designed to replace Boeing's giant 747 as the world's premier long-distance airliner, since it will have a greater range, carry a bigger payload and run more efficiently.

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While the A380 also would rate as the most expensive airliner ever built, that cost may be dwarfed by the expense incurred by airports to handle it.

London's Heathrow, for instance, the busiest airport in Europe, estimates that it will have to spend several hundred million dollars to accommodate A380 flights.

Major costs to airports will come in building wider runways and taxiways, and separating them more than they are now. Other costs will involve ungrading luggage handling and passenger loading and unloading facilities.

The runway construction changes are necessitated by safety regulations resulting from the A380's 262-foot wingspan.

The A380 is classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as the first "Group 6" aircraft in the world, and to handle these planes regulations require 200-foot-wide runways separated from 100-foot-wide taxiways by about 1,000 feet. Most U.S. airports are designed to handle Group 5 aircraft, which require 150-foot-wide runways separated from 75-foot-wide taxiways by 400 feet.

Officials of Airbus, a consortium of European manufacturers, say they are working with about 10 U.S. airports for regularly scheduled flights, which hopefully will occur next year. These airports include Atlanta, New York (Kennedy), Los Angeles, San Francisco, Anchorage, Chicago (O'Hare), Washington (Dulles), Memphis and Orlando.

Currently only four airports -- Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and JFK -- and cargo terminals in Memphis and Anchorage are being refitted. Others say they will follow.

Orders to purchase the A380 are coming in, but not yet at the rate to turn a profit, says the Washington Post. So far 14 customers have ordered 149 planes, short of the 250 that analysts say are necessary for profitability.

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The biggest operator is said to be Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, with orders for 45 planes. Air France plans to use the A380 for flights between Paris and Montreal, while Singapore Airlines says it will schedule flights between London and Singapore, and London and Sydney.

Major orders are expected to come from FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service for overseas cargo shipments.

No flights here

You won't have to be concerned about the giant airliner landing at Rochester International Airport, even though RST is in the midst of lengthening its main runway from 7,533 feet to 9,000 feet.

RST's runways are 150-feet wide, and its 60-foot-wide taxiways are separated by 400 feet from its runways -- not enough to meet Group 6 safety regulations.

However, airport manager Steve Leqve says the runway lengthening project will enable RST to handle fully-loaded 747-400 craft, the largest that Boeing manufactures.

Before the runway lengthening, due to be completed later this year, 747's could -- and did -- land here but they were not fully-loaded. Rochester International is an alternate airfield to Minneapolis-St. Paul International in time of any emergency.

Bob Retzlaff is travel editor of the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached by phone at (507) 285-7704 or by e-mail at retz@postbulletin.com.

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