Building the world's biggest airliner

Go inside Airbus's factory in France where the company assembles the ginormous A380 passenger airplane.


Kent German

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1 of 28 Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Toulouse in southwestern France is where Airbus has its headquarters, and also where the company completes final assembly the A380, the world's largest and most expensive airliner.

After following a convoy of an A380's parts the previous night, we went inside the factory for a tour. 

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Airbus's 185-acre facility sits on the edge of Toulouse's airport. Though it also builds A350, A330 and some A320 aircraft here, we stuck to section dedicated to the A380. 

In a building as massive as the A380 itself, crews take the airplane's major parts and fasten them together. They also attach the engines and landing gear, outfit much of the interior wiring and systems, and perform tests on the control surfaces. There's space for eight aircraft inside.

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As we walked in, we saw an A380 destined for Emirates. Currently the largest A380 operator by far, Emirates now has ordered 142 airplanes, with 96 delivered as of the end of July.

The vertical stabilizer (or tail) and the engine cowlings are two of the few parts that arrive at the factory already painted. The mostly aluminum fuselage, still a pea-soup green at this point, will be painted in Hamburg, Germany after the aircraft's first flight.

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At this station, crews were attaching the four giant engines, which are made by outside manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce. When we toured on a Friday afternoon, the factory floor was surprisingly quiet with few workers visible. 

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The adjoining station was empty at the time, letting us take in the building's immense size. 

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Another A380 nearby was headed for Singapore Airlines. Once the final assembly on an A380 is complete, it's rolled outside where additional work is carried out at one of 12 parking stands.

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Next we were taken up a stairway behind the aircraft so we could walk inside. As we climbed up, we got a great view of the auxiliary power unit, or APU. It powers the aircraft when the engines aren't running and is used to start the engines before flight.

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Baggage will eventually be loaded into the hold through this door.

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We first entered the cabin through one of the lower deck passenger doors. Crews also install the emergency exit slides in each door before each plane leaves the plant.

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The interior was a far cry from how the cabin would look complete with seats, galleys, lavatories and (for Emirates) the premium class bar. Technicians walked through the cabin making checks with the only light coming from portable stands on the floor.

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Next we walked back outside and climbed another flight of stairs to the upper deck. 

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As we boarded through a rear upper deck door, I could see almost the full length of the 238-foot fuselage.

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Holes for the windows were cut long before the fuselage was shipped to Toulouse. The three fuselage sections are made in Germany and elsewhere in France, the wings in the United Kingdom, and the tailplane (or horizontal stabilizer) in Spain.

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Being totally empty, the upper deck appeared to stretch on almost forever. After the plane is completed and conducts test flights, it will be flown to Hamburg for installation of the interior fittings and delivery to the customer. If you'd like to buy your own A380 and outfit as you wish, they start at $437 million.

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Lining the walls and ceilings are a maze of wires, hydraulic lines, water pipes and ventilation ducts.

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In Toulouse the cockpit will be outfitted with all the necessary equipment and furnishings necessary to fly the plane. 

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The 48-foot tail is the only major part of the A380 not to be transported to Toulouse on the truck convoy. Instead, it's flown to the plant in one of Airbus' curious Beluga cargo aircraft. 

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Each wing is 150 feet long. I could barely fit it into my wide-angle lens. During final assembly, crews will test operation of the flaps, ailerons and rudder. 

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The rudder's surface was so highly polished that it almost disappeared when we viewed it form behind. 

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As we climbed down, we got a great view of the tailplane. Raised platforms allow crews to access almost every part of the A380's exterior.

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The landing gear is elevated off the ground to allow crews to raise and lower it.

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Each A380 has 22 wheels to support its weight on the ground. 

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We also climbed onto a balcony running along the side of the building for a fantastic view.

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A newly arrived wing, fresh from Airbus's plant in Wales, was resting on the factory floor. All it needed was a fuselage. 

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These pylons are used to attach the aircraft's engines to the wing.

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As we walked out, we passed an A350 undergoing final assembly. Airbus's newest aircraft, it started flying passengers in 2015. To see an A350 in action, check out our photo gallery from the 2017 Paris Air Show.

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As it's made of composite materials, the A350 is almost entirely pale yellow. Don't worry, it will look better with an airline paint job. 

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Outside the factory was the the convoy we had followed the previous night. By next week, they'll disappear into the factory for final assembly. And about eight months after that, the completed airliner will begin flying with Qatar Airways.

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