BLAGNAC, France--It may not be the longest passenger plane in the world, or necessarily the most famous. But the Airbus A380 is unquestionably the biggest: a true double-decker airplane that can carry more passengers than any other commercial plane in the sky.
Built to carry 525 passengers in a standard 3-class configuration, the A380 is a behemoth of a plane that Airbus says today leads the industry in cost per seat mile. While other airliners may be seen as rivals, "you have to have [an] A380 to compete with an A380," Airbus says.
As part of CNET Road Trip 2011, reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the A380 final assembly line in this airport town just outside Toulouse, France. While the major components of the plane--the fuselage, wings, tail, tail fins, and more, are manufactured at Airbus facilities elsewhere, they are shipped to, and assembled, here.
What emerges from this factory, which Airbus says is the largest industrial building in Europe, is a massive airplane, one that has been flown--or at least ordered--by 18 different customers, including 11 of the world's top 20 largest.
This is the nose section of an A380 being built in what is known as Station 40, at the facility in Blagnac.
Two A380s that have been fully assembled sit on the tarmac outside the final assembly factory in Blagnac, France. The planes have not yet had their carrier livery painted on--that will be done after they are flown to Hamburg, Germany, where the customers will pick up their new planes. The tails have been modified in this photograph so as not to reveal the planes' customers.
Seen from across the giant Airbus assembly facility near Toulouse, France, an A380 is being constructed at what is known as Station 40. The plane's major components--its fuselage, wings, tail, tail fins, and more--are joined together at one large station. It's a different system than the one used at rival Boeing, where planes move down a line to have their major components added.
In the foreground of this photograph is an A380 wing resting just above the ground. In the background, we see another wing elevated. The one on the ground is being stored here for the next A380, while the one in the background is already part of one of the giant planes that is currently being built.
Above, on the ceiling, are two large cranes that are used to hoist major plane components, like these wings, into place.
Here, a view up at the left side wing of an A380 that is being assembled at Station 40.
This is the end of an A380 wing that's joined with the plane's fuselage.
In the background, we see the front section of an A380 that's currently being assembled. In the foreground, we see the two tires that will be part of the plane's front landing gear.
This is the main part of an A380's front landing gear. The components are waiting to be added to a future A380.
These two wheels will be part of the front landing gear of an Airbus A380.
An Airbus employee works on the systems inside one of the plane's massive wings.
The A380's wings are big enough that they can hold the plane's air conditioning packs. That, says Airbus, is an advantage over most other large planes because the packs don't have to be stored in the A380's belly fairing. That, in turn, means the plane's fuselage is more streamlined than it would otherwise be, reducing its drag.
An Airbus employee works on one of the A380's wings. You can see some of the air conditioning systems installed just on the inside of the hollow space of the wing.
Here we see the A380's nose section and its left wing inside the jig, where it is currently being assembled.
In this photograph, we can see the opening for the A380's front landing gear, just under its nose.
This left wing of an A380 has already been joined with the fuselage of one of the giant airplanes.
The left tail fin of an A380 that's under assembly at Station 40.
An A380 wing awaits the arrival of the next group of major components for the next of the massive airplanes. Airbus always has a second set of wings lying around for future construction.
This is the tip of a left-side wing that's awaiting the arrival of the components for the next A380 assembly.
After the major components of an A380 are joined together at Station 40, the plane is backed out of the assembly building and brought back in again at what is called Station 30. There, the plane has all its interior systems installed, as well as its engines added. Here, we see an A380 that is at Station 30.
This is the pylon for a left-side wing A380 engine. It is the only major A380 component that is actually made in Toulouse, France. While the plane is assembled there--actually, in nearby Blagnac--most of its components are built in Airbus facilities in England, Germany, and Spain.
These tracks in the floor allow the rear side of the jig to move as the assembly process requires. The front section of the jig--from the nose until the wings--is stationary, while the rear section can move on these tracks.
An A380 tail section waits to be joined with the fuselage of one of the giant airplanes.
One of the main A380 doors opens to the interior of the fuselage of one of the planes that is being assembled.
This A380, seen from the right side, is at Station 30, meaning it has already had all its exterior components added, and crews are now installing the plane's interior systems--hydraulics, avionics, wiring, doors, and cockpit.
One of the two engines on the right wing of an A380 is being worked on at Station 30.
Each A380 at Station 30 is hoisted about 1.5 meters off the ground to have its landing gear installed. Once the landing gear is joined with the plane, it can be lowered down to rest on its own weight. Here, we see one of the planes still hoisted off the ground.
Here, we see the left front side of an A380 at Station 30.
A close-up of the landing gear of an A380 that is hoisted off the ground. Soon, it will be lowered down so it can hold its own weight on the landing gear.
This is a former A380 test plane that has been sold to a private customer. Here, the plane sits at Station 30, where it's having its interior systems installed.
A380 customers can choose from two kinds of engines--the Engine Alliance GP7200--from a joint venture of General Electric and Pratt & Whitney--or the Rolls-Royce Trent 900.
This is a close-up of the front landing gear of the A380.
This is the front landing gear of an A380. All told, an A380 has 24 wheels--22 on its main landing gear, and these 2 on the front.
This is an engine pylon for the Airbus A380.
Here is an engine destined to be installed on a future A380, as well as one that is already mounted on the wing of one of the giant planes.