Building the A380, the world's largest passenger plane

Road Trip 2011: CNET gets a firsthand look at how the double-decker behemoth that is Airbus' A380 is assembled inside the largest industrial building in Europe. It's a sight to behold.

At a huge Airbus facility just outside Toulouse, France, the aviation giant manufacturers the A380, the largest passenger plane in the world. Kathleen Craig

BLAGNAC, France--What would you do with nearly 6,000 square feet of private airplane?

That's the question I'm asking myself as I look up at what will soon be one of the largest private planes in the world--an Airbus A380 slated for an unknown buyer. Two full decks of luxury in the sky, right in front of me, and sadly, I won't get to see what it looks like.

But I do get to see how A380s are made. As part of Road Trip 2011, I've come here to Airbus' Jean-Luc Lagardere plant, just outside Toulouse, France, where the aviation giant does the final assembly of the A380, the world's largest passenger plane.

There are, of course, longer planes--Airbus' own A340-600, and Boeing's 777-ER and 747-8 Intercontinental --but none of them can carry more passengers. And for anyone who's seen an A380, there's no question why: it's a full double-decker plane, the first of its kind.

Never mind how big the main deck is; the upper deck is as big as a full Airbus A330. All told, the plane can carry 525 passengers in a standard 3-class configuration, and theoretically, more than 800 if the plane was all economy class.

But I'm not here to talk about numbers of passengers. I'm here to see these giant planes get made. The plant, which was purpose-built just for the A380, is the largest industrial building in Europe, according to Riccardo Spimpolo, an A380 product marketing senior analyst and my host for the day.

I've seen big planes getting built before. Several times, I've visited Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant --the biggest building by volume on Earth--and seen that company's assembly of both its 747-400 and all-new 747-8 Intercontinental planes. So I'm somewhat familiar with how these things work.

But stepping inside the plant here, I'm quickly surprised. Here, the A380 is assembled--at least its major exterior components--all at one station. They are shipped here in a convoy, brought inside the building, and then craned over to what's known as Station 40, a giant "jig," Spimpolo calls it, where the plane slowly comes together as one part after another--a wing, the tail, a tail fin--is joined to the giant fuselage.

While Airbus has been doing final assembly on its planes here for years, it needed new space for the A380, so it purchased land near its existing plants and put this building up. In 2005, the first A380 was assembled here, joining major components that were manufactured in Airbus plants in Germany, England, France, and Spain.

Currently, an A380 spends a little more than a week in the jig at Station 40, Spimpolo said, and for now, that means one new plane is being assembled at a time. The plant's capacity allows it to turn out four A380s a month, but at the moment, that pace is more like 2.5 a month, he explained. By about the end of 2012, the plant should be up to capacity.

The Airbus A380 is assembled inside a giant set of scaffolding known as a jig at a company facility near Toulouse, France.

Once assembly of the major components is done, the plane is backed out of the building and brought in through the next (giant) door over, where it will be parked at one of three slots in what's known as Station 30. There, all the A380's interior systems will be added--electrical, hydraulics, the cockpit, doors, engines, and so on. Airbus can work on three different A380s at a time in Station 30, and indeed today, there are three lined up here, including what will surely soon be the winner of the world's most decadent private plane award. There are also two A380s being worked on for a major European airline.

The planes will be at Station 30 for about three weeks, Spimpolo said, after which they are taken outside for a monthlong series of final work-throughs that include cabin pressurization, fuel leak, and engine tests. After that, you've basically got an A380 that's ready to go, and each plane at this point is flown to Hamburg, Germany, where it is then painted, fitted with its interior cabinetry, and handed over along with its keys, to its new owner.

At some point, Spimpolo said, this whole operation could be doubled in size. The plant was specifically built twice as big than is needed for current production with the idea that someday, the A380 market might demand twice as many planes. If that happens, you'd basically take the entire process described above, and replicate it: two planes at Station 40, six at Station 30, and so on. Assembly would not be any faster.

The jig
Given that the A380 is the world's largest passenger plane, you don't expect it to be essentially swallowed up by the giant scaffolding that surrounds the area where it's assembled. Yet walking inside the facility here, that was pretty much exactly my first impression.

And that should give you a sense of the size of the jig. Actually, though, the jig has two major components: one for the front of the plane, from in front of its wings to the nose, and another for the wings and behind. The front section is fixed in place, and anchored to the ground, because the tools that are used for the assembly of the front of the plane need to be completely stable. But from the wings back, the jig is movable, on a set of tracks in the ground, that allow it to slide out of the way so the plane can be backed out of the building after its time at Station 40 is done.

But while you would never want to trivialize the complexity of building a giant airplane like the A380, it seems that at Station 40, at least, assembly boils down to a case of fitting a group of carefully selected pieces together. Writ very large, of course. Spimpolo makes this point when showing me the end of a wing laid out on the floor of the building: all the systems inside the wing are a bit further down its length. At the very end are the elements that will fit nicely into place in the fuselage. The same goes for the tail, the tail fins, and so on.

"It's a very, very delicate process." The workers have to be "very gentle, very exact, and very perfect."
--Riccardo Spimpolo, Airbus product marketing senior analyst

Over at Station 30, one of the first things you see is that this giant plane seems to be floating--and in a way it is. Its front wheel is, in fact, about 5 feet off the ground, the fuselage having been lifted up that far so the landing gear can be installed from below. Once the landing gear is fully joined, the plane can finally be lowered down to rest on its own weight.

Then there are the engines. They are one of the only major components that don't come on the convoys that snake their way through the French countryside from a port in Bordeaux to the plant here. That's because the engines are the property of the planes' owners, even before they take delivery of the A380s, Spimpolo said. The airlines negotiate the purchase of the engines directly from Rolls-Royce or the Engine Alliance (General Electric and Pratt & Whitney), the two makers of A380 engines. "We receive, install, and keep [them] for the shortest possible [time]," Spimpolo said. Airbus doesn't "intervene" in that process.

Quiet
My tour of the A380 final assembly plant took place on a normal weekday afternoon, but walking into the giant building, I would have sworn it was a weekend. There was (almost) none of the industrial racket I'd grown used to from visits to other manufacturing facilities--drilling, hammering, sawing, soldering, and so on. Instead, it was eerily quiet, especially when we moved to Station 30.

I mentioned that to Spimpolo, who agreed that it was quiet on the floor. But then he pointed out that in fact, there were hundreds of people, if not more, at work on the three planes at Station 30--they were just all inside the three soon-to-be A380s. From the outside, though, it might as well have been a holiday. But maybe it was just because of the nature of the work. "It's a very, very delicate process," Spimpolo said of working on an A380. The workers have to be "very gentle, very exact, and very perfect."

Flying real estate
So now the tour is at an end, and we're staring at the private A380, thinking about the nearly 6,000 square feet of flying real estate, and wondering what it will be like inside. Even my hosts--Spimpolo and a woman from Airbus communications--have no idea how that plane will be outfitted. Airbus doesn't do that work--for private customers, the interior is designed by a third party. But our imaginations start to run wild. Movie theaters. Bowling alleys. Swimming pools (can that even be done?). We'd all like to know. But we never will.

 

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