Air Transport World

Curtain call: the A380 makes its public debut this month, ushering in what Airbus believes will be a new era in air transport.(Large Transports)(Airbus S.A.S.)

IT IS A FEW STEPS FROM THE ELEVATOR to the glassed-in gallery that overlooks the three Station 30 docks on the north side of Airbus's vast new final assembly line in Toulouse. Even if you know what to expect, the view is deeply impressive: Three structurally complete A380s neatly ensconced in tailor-made multilevel work platforms. "When you show this to an airline customer, their eyes get bigger than saucers," says Senior Marketing Analyst Thomas Burger.

The A380 conveys mass and solidity with a deep fuselage, a rather elephantine visage--the high forehead of the upper deck looming over the relatively small eyes of the windshield--and its broad, deep-section wings. It's a safe prediction that its air show debut at Paris this June will be impressive, a combination of low speed, low noise and size that has not been seen in the air since the age of the dirigible.

The monster will make its official public debut on Jan. 18 at what Airbus calls a "reveal" rather than a rollout in one of the Toulouse hangars. The company is deliberately vague about the first-flight date ("first quarter"), arguing that once the airplane is ready, the winter weather in Toulouse will have to yield up a day free from clouds and crosswinds. The same "it-will-happen-when-it-happens-within-limits" attitude governs discussions of certification. "Second-quarter 2006, in time for deliveries to Singapore [Airlines]," says Burger.

Airbus is gearing up for a flight-test program that is expected to deliver an aircraft of unprecedented reliability to its operators. The basic engineering of the A380 with its widely separated electrical-plus-hydraulic systems, dual auxiliary power units and other features has aimed at a transport that will virtually never divert, while its avionics are based on a "fail-operational" architecture that will keep on ticking after multiple failures. Suppliers were required early on to provide representative components that Airbus could flog to death in high-cycle testing to identify any weak spots.

Now, in preparation for flight tests, the components are being tested together, including in some unique new combination tests. The result, the manufacturer plans, will be that the first two of four flight-test aircraft will cover the basic envelope rapidly, leaving their sisters to focus on worldwide route-proving with complete airline cabins onboard. …

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