How do you pick up a 'superjumbo' A380?
When an airline places an order for new passenger planes, it’s a proud moment for the company.
Media are notified, company Facebook pages updated, shareholders pat themselves on the back.
And all that pomp is magnified tenfold when an airline actually picks up its first model of a particularly special aircraft.
These days, no two planes catch more attention than the super efficient Boeing Dreamliner and the monstrous Airbus 380, the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft.
So what’s involved in the superjumbo aircraft delivery process? We tagged along with Thai Airways to the Airbus delivery center in Toulouse, France, earlier this year to find out exactly what picking up a shiny new US$300 million A380 entails.
Like buying a new car
When an airline's new Airbus jet is ready, crew travel to one of the European aviation company's three delivery centers at final assembly facilities in Toulouse, France; Hamburg, Germany; or Tianjin, China, to pick it up for what's called a delivery flight. (An odd name, given the plane is not actually being delivered to you.)
But it's not as simple as just flying in, signing a check and asking Airbus to hand over the keys.
“Picking up a new plane is much the same kind of process as when you pick up a new car," said Bob Lange, vice president of marketing at Airbus.
"Except it’s bigger and it’s a lot more complicated, which means there are many areas of the airplane you need to check out before taking it."
Which means there's a lot of back and forth behind the scenes before the actual handover takes place. And we're not just talking about the usual checks for scratches or a shaky tray table.
"The inspection doesn’t just happen at the delivery center -- our customers get access to the plane while it’s being built in the factory so they can inspect the inside of the plane as well as the outside before the pieces are put together."
Typically, accepting a new plane can take anywhere between two to four days to a week for an A380.
"You need to look at every single detail," he said. "You don’t want a scratch on the paint work –- and there’s a lot of paint work -- between 500 and 600 kilos of paint are used on an A380."
Before taking delivery of the superjumbo and signing the transfer of the title, the buyer's team of experts conducts a complete and detailed check of the plane, with the help of the Airbus Delivery Team.
Basically, they're checking to make sure the aircraft in front of them matches up with the specifications on the contract.
Airbus breaks it down as follows.
First day: Ground checks. External surfaces, bays and cabin visual inspection, static aircraft system and cockpit checks, engine tests.
Second day: Acceptance flight. Checks during flight of all aircraft systems (including cabin systems) and aircraft behavior.
Third day: Physical rework or provision of solutions for all technical and quality snags. Basically, a chance to fix everything the airline is unhappy with.
Fourth day: Completion of technical acceptance. Technical closure of the aircraft and all associated documents attesting the aircraft’s compliance to the type certificate and conformity to the specification allowing the issuance of the Certificate of Airworthiness.
Fifth day: Transfer of the aircraft's title deeds to the customer. The aircraft is now the official property of the airline and prepared for the flight to its home base.
Then, with all that out of the way, it's time to let the self-congratulatory fun begin.
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The delivery flight
Airbus give airlines the option of hosting a big celebration to promote their new toys, which include press conferences, handover ceremonies and lots of wine. (This is France, after all.)
Media are permitted to tour both the Airbus A380 assembly line -- a quick drive from the delivery center -- and the finished aircraft in the days running up to takeoff.
"We offer the opportunity of an event to every airline that takes a new aircraft for the first time," says Lange.
"Typically we would do 20 of these a year for our different aircraft in the product line. This one [Thai Airways] is our third A380 this year. For a new A380 customer it’s a big event and it’s also an opportunity for the airline to showcase its latest products to its customers."
In the case of the Thai Airways pickup, high level executives from the airline, media and Thai dignitaries were invited to join the flight from Toulouse back to Bangkok.
About two hours before takeoff, passengers checked their luggage at the delivery center's check-in counter, much like a normal flight. But we weren't assigned a designated seat number. Seating is first come first serve, though carefully worded signs were laid on the first class seats to remind us non-VIPs that this section was off limits.
Upside: Nobody had to pay for overweight baggage.
Also worth noting is that a delivery flight is a no-frills affair. Given that it's not a regular commercial journey, the planes aren't tricked out with an airline's branded items, like blankets, pillows, magazines and washroom toiletries.
Food on delivery flights is catered by a local in-flight meal company, while Airbus gives passengers its own branded bags filled with a pillow, blanket, tooth brush and other toiletries. Nice touch.
There's no fine china or silver cutlery. The in-flight entertainment system works though, as it's pre-programmed as part of the buying process.
On the Thai Airways A380 delivery flight, there was lots of Champagne, photos, applauding and hand shaking.
In fact the first hour of the journey was pretty much an in-flight party, with everyone free to roam around the plane and snap photos of themselves in the jump seats or laying across empty rows of seats.
And it is certainly a surreal feeling, being on a plane with 507 seats, seeing less than 50 of them -- first and business class, only -- filled.
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Can the pilots actually fly this thing?
For some, the thought of hopping on a new plane might bring on feelings of unease. Did the assembly crew miss any of the 8,000 bolts holding it together? How much experience do the airline's pilots actually have on the new aircraft they're about to fly home?
Turns out if you've flown one Airbus, you've flown them all. Well, sort of.
"When we deliver an aircraft the Thai Airways pilots are fully qualified and checked out to take it home," says Lange.
"When the Thai airways pilots take this aircraft, because they already operate Airbus aircraft, one of the distinct features is that we have a family of aircraft which, from the pilot’s and cockpit point of view, are very similar.
"So once a pilot has already flown an Airbus aircraft it’s a really simple matter to transition to another one. Many airline pilots that fly today routinely fly more than one type of Airbus aircraft."
A380 turns five
At a starting price of around US$300 million per plane, the A380 is primarily used to service airlines' most popular routes.
Singapore Airlines was the first to fly the A380, in October of 2007. Emirates and Qantas followed in 2008, Air France in 2009, Lufthansa in 2010 and Korean Air and China Southern in 2011. Malaysia Airlines put its first A380 into service in July 2012.
Airlines awaiting delivery of A380s are British Airways, Asiana, Etihad, Hong Kong Airlines, Kingfisher, Qatar Airways, Skymark, Transaero and Virgin Atlantic.
And despite the fact that this plane is five years old, as noted above it's still a big deal when an airline decides to purchase one. It's a sign of prosperity, not to mention airline execs' confidence in their ability to fill all those seats on a daily basis.
More on CNN: China's first Airbus A380 takes off
So what's changed on the A380 in the last five years?
"The aircraft that we’re delivering today is a very reliable aircraft and exterior wise it looks much the same as the first aircraft that was delivered," said Lange. "The changes are parts of continuous modifications that go on behind the scenes. Things the crew and pilot wouldn’t even notice."
What does change is what the airline decides to put inside.
"The kind of seats that are being fitted today are already half a generation ahead of the ones that were put in five years ago," added Lange.
"The A380 was designed as a family of aircraft, and there was a plan to do a slightly larger version but from a market perspective we’re not in a hurry to do that. The time that it’s likely to come out is 2020."
The A380 is designed to fit in a box on a ground at the airport that is 80x80 meters wide. That is the largest size of real estate an airport can allocate.
"An A380 today uses all of the width of that 80 meters, but not the length [the superjumbo is 72.7 meters long]. So in the future a longer aircraft would use that space the most efficient way possible. My guess is it will happen in 10 years."
For those who want to check out the Airbus facilities themselves, including the A380 Final Assembly Line, visit www.taxiway.fr for information on tours.
About the Thai Airways A380
Thai Airways ordered a three-class configuration for its A380s, which can carry 507 passengers.
Royal First Class seats 12 passengers, Royal Silk Class (business) has room for 60 and economy class fits 435.
Unlike several airlines that have ordered private suites for their A380s, the bright, white first-class section on Thai Airways' planes feature only 12 “mini-suites,” a decision airline executives say they based on passenger feedback.
Seats are 26.5 inches wide and recline 180 degrees. First-class passengers also have access to an onboard multi-purpose lounge.
Thai Airways is now using the A380 to service Bangkok-Hong Kong, and has just picked up its second jumbo jet, which will be used on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route.
Early next year, Thai Airways will start flying the Airbus A380 on its Bangkok-Narita route, then Bangkok-Paris in February followed by Osaka, Sydney and London flights later in 2013.
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