Ready or not, the A380 is coming in 2006. "Airports will be ready," Dick Marchi, senior VP at ACI-NA, tells AE&T. "Most will be fine."

The double-decker A380, which was rolled out in January, will carry up to 555 passengers more than 9,000 nm, while the freighter version will be able to haul up to 150 tonnes for more than 5,600 nm.

The giant aircraft boasts a wingspan of 261 ft.-some 48 ft. longer than the 747-and a maximum takeoff weight of 1.2 million lb. The first passenger operation is scheduled for 2006 while the freighter version is slated to enter service in 2008. Airbus holds 149 firm A380 orders and options for another 70.

For nearly a decade, airport officials have been keeping an eye on the large aircraft development programs of both Airbus and Boeing. Several years ago they asked FAA to set up a group to coordinate information, says Marchi. "They did and it's called the large aircraft facilitation group. It's been meeting once every two months for at least three or four hours."

Though no US airlines have ordered the A380, a number of foreign carriers will operate passenger service with it into major US airports such as New York JFK, San Francisco and Los Angeles. FedEx and UPS have ordered freighter versions, which will be operated at their respective hubs in Memphis and Louisville. In Europe, hubs such as Frankfurt (Lufthansa), London Heathrow (Virgin Atlantic) and Paris Charles de Gaulle (Air France) are preparing to receive the aircraft. Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways and Emirates also have orders in for the behemoth.

The A380's size will not require dramatic modifications to existing airport facilities, according to some airport officials. Airbus last year concluded a six-year study, "Experimental Pavement Programme," designed to determine the airplane's effect on runways. Tests confirmed it would have no greater impact than other large aircraft such as the A340-600.

Marchi says the pavement of most runways will not need to be reinforced. Some airports will need to make changes to runway lighting to provide clearance for the wings and reconfigure some sign- age to avoid blast damage from the engines, which are located farther out on the wings than those on a 747. Some erosion control procedures will be required to prevent the aircraft from blowing dirt and rocks around, he says.

Preparing the way for the jumbo is not without cost. For example, Heathrow operator BAA estimates it is spending some $772 million to reposition taxiways and rebuild Pier 6 to accommodate the A380 and its passengers, according to CEO Mike Clasper. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey expects to spend in excess of $179 million on airside improvements at JFK, a figure that does not include terminal costs.

Early on, Airbus made a decision to strive for "airport compatibility," which made the job somewhat easier, says Dan Cohen-nir, program manager for Airbus North America. "Before the 2000 launch of the A380 program, we had worked with the airports to better define the aircraft and to minimize the impact on existing airports," he tells AE&T. The goal was to integrate the design to "fit in a box"-to have a footprint that was not significantly larger than that of the 747.

For a number of airports, wingspan was a major consideration, says Cohen-nir, but there was no single issue that all airports had in common. "Some had compatible airside [with] minor upgrades on the terminal. For others it was quite the opposite. They wanted to make sure the overall accommodations to landing and service at the gate met the requirements of the airlines." "I give Airbus a lot of credit," says Marchi. "They've done a really great job in getting information about the airplane out to people and meeting with airport staff to help them devise solutions."

Each airport has been responsible for its own plan for accommodation. Some have worked the changes into existing plans. "A classic example is JFK," he says. "They've figured out how to meet the dimensional criteria for the airplane but it requires they relocate a taxiway that runs around the entire central terminal area at Kennedy. It has 58 intersections on it." Runway changes that were approved by FAA six months ago are currently under construction. Marchi says JFK took the lead in developing a plan for the A380 and has shared its knowledge with other US airports. "They did a very good job of putting together a package for different issues-taxiway width, separation, bridges that need to be strengthened, and they were good about sharing it with other people."

Other airports, such as Frankfurt, can accommodate the aircraft at an existing terminal. Terminal 2, built in 1994, was designed with five positions for larger aircraft. Terminal 1, which is used by Lufthansa and its Star Alliance partners, requires some modifications that will be coordinated with a modernization project. Frankfurt also is building a separate maintenance hangar for the A380.

There is some question as to whether an airport must have a 200-ft.-wide runway rather than the standard 150 ft. "The track is only about seven or eight feet wider than a 747," Marchi points out. "The runway has to accommodate the wheels. The wings of a 747 hang over the edge of a runway anyway. This is not a particularly damaging aircraft in terms of wheel loading. But you do have to widen the pavement, the shoulders, so if the airplane veered off the runway it would have a wider piece of pavement to accommodate it without breaking."

FAA has not yet decided whether to certify the A380 to operate on a 150-ft.-wide runway. Because of that, Marchi says, a number of US airports are taking a wait-and-see attitude until they are certain of the agency's requirements. "They are taking the position universally, 'well thank you very much but we can't justify spending that money.'"

He notes that there are published procedures that allow large aircraft to land on narrower runways, which require specialized crew training as well as limits on crosswinds and weight. "So if they get to the end of certification and the airplane doesn't get certified for a 150-ft. runway, then they will operate the airplanes [under] narrow runway procedures. They don't like it and don't want to do it as a matter of course, but it will allow that airplane to go into service. Then they would go back and do the modifications to the runway. But you just can't justify spending that kind of money it if turns out it's not going to be needed."

Cohen-nir says there continues to be "a lot of activity" regarding baggage and passenger handling for the A380. One wrinkle is the need for upper-deck catering capabilities. Though most existing ground service equipment should accommodate the aircraft, some new towbarless tugs are being developed similar to those currently in use with the A340 and 747. "All other vehicles are comparable to what is available today," he says.

Another item for consideration is passenger boarding bridges, with a number of airlines looking at dual bridges. "Most airports will provide service to the upper deck," Cohen-nir says. "The only thing that will be needed is an area within the terminal for vertical access, such as stairs or an escalator, to the second level." Airlines that operate the A380 want to ensure that the turnaround time at the gate is similar to that of other aircraft.