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Airbus' Megaplane Has A Weight Problem


In a cavernous factory on the outskirts of Toulouse, France, workers are painstakingly assembling a prototype of the Airbus A380, the biggest commercial aircraft ever built. Airbus says the double-decker jet is within its $13 billion development budget and on schedule for its first commercial flight, by Singapore Airlines Ltd., in the spring of 2006. But as the launch of this technological marvel draws near, its success increasingly will hinge on such seemingly mundane items as passenger seats and food-service carts.

To ensure that the A380 will be able to fly up to 14,800 kilometers nonstop while meeting ambitious fuel-efficiency targets, Airbus has told airlines and their suppliers that the plane's cabin furnishings will have to weigh 10% to 30% less than comparable ones on existing planes. ``The vendors have been told: 'If you do not get your weight down, you will not be on this program,''' says Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines Inc., which is scheduled to take delivery of 45 A380s, starting in October, 2006.

CRUNCH TIME

True, the launch of an aircraft always leads to a struggle between airlines who push for add-ons that increase the plane's weight and manufacturers who fret it will become too heavy to meet promised performance standards. Airbus warned suppliers of cabin furnishings well over a year ago that they would have to reduce the weight of many components. Even so, many suppliers and industry experts say tensions over the A380's weight are running unusually high. And time is growing short, with airlines such as Singapore, Emirates, and Qantas needing to finalize supplier arrangements now to meet scheduled launches in 2006.

One reason for the tension is that the A380 is heavier than Airbus had planned, even though big sections are being built with lightweight carbon-based composites. Since the plane's original design was approved in 2001, its expected weight has crept up by nearly 4 tons, to 243 tons, as Airbus added features such as quieter engines at the request of some airlines. The weight could notch up even more over the next few months as minor adjustments are made during final assembly, says Chris Stonehouse, an Airbus vice-president who oversees the A380 customer program. Even with the added weight, Stonehouse says, the plane will meet the performance guarantees spelled out in its contracts with the 11 carriers that have ordered it. If those terms aren't met, airlines could refuse to accept delivery or demand penalty payments.

But the added weight has greatly restricted the airlines' maneuvering room when it comes to outfitting the A380's interior, which is designed to hold at least 555 passengers. Most airlines plan to entice high-margin first- and business-class passengers onto the A380 with add-ons such as Internet workstations, seats that convert into beds, and perhaps even partitions to create private sleeping compartments. But loading up the premium cabins with luxurious extras makes them weigh more, and airlines can't easily find offsetting weight savings in the economy cabins, where they're counting on squeezing in as many passengers as possible. As the plane's weight rises, fuel consumption increases -- an especially urgent concern at a time of soaring fuel prices -- and so do airport landing fees that are based on the plane's empty weight.

That's why carriers and suppliers are scrambling to squeeze excess weight out of everything on board, from lavatories to lighting fixtures. ``It's a big problem and a big challenge,'' says Jacques Pierrejean, a veteran Paris designer who is helping Emirates plan the cabins for its A380 fleet. He says the pressure to cut weight on the A380 is greater than on any other plane he has worked on.

The airlines' dilemma was underscored recently when Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. delayed the scheduled delivery of its first A380 by 18 months, saying its suppliers were unable to guarantee delivery of cabin furnishings in time to meet the summer, 2006, launch date. Virgin declines to give details, and other early A380 customers say their launch plans are on schedule. But the weight problem may be especially perplexing for Virgin, which has a reputation for lavish first- and business-class cabins, including such features as personal wide-screen TVs and an onboard massage salon.

Many cabin suppliers can offer impressive weight savings by using next-generation materials -- but at a high price. Recaro Aircraft Seating in Stuttgart, Germany, says it can cut the weight of a seat as much as 30% by substituting carbon-based composites for steel in the frame and armrests. But the composites add more than $1,500 to the cost of a seat. ``Right now, the airline industry doesn't have the cash flow to pay for this,'' says Catharina L?bke, Recaro's head of strategic marketing.

The use of new materials even extends into lavatories, where suppliers such as Hamburg's Dasell Cabin Interior are developing lighter composites to replace fiberglass walls and ceilings. But airlines can't count on composites for quick weight loss everywhere. Galleys, for example, are likely to remain mostly aluminum. Composites would not only cost more but also would have to undergo lengthy testing and certification for heat resistance. And airlines are reluctant to invest heavily in galley improvements because they don't generate revenue, says Tim Miner, sales director for galleys at Driessen Aircraft Interior Systems, a Dutch manufacturer.

LIGHTER SOUNDS

In other instances, new technology could do the trick without a substantial price hike. That's the case with in-flight audio and video entertainment systems. Supplier Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp. says it has devised lighter but more powerful gear that will weigh at least 30% less and take up 20% less space than systems on existing wide-body planes.

Despite the pressure, airlines say they're on track to achieve the needed weight savings. ``We've been working toward this goal for three years, and we're satisfied that we are where we should be,'' says Emirates' Clark. Even so, there's a risk that lighter-weight materials will make the plane less comfortable and appealing to passengers. ``It could go downmarket and look tacky,'' says Doug McVitie, a former Airbus marketing employee who's now a private aviation consultant.

But the pressure to cut weight won't be going away. Two years after the A380 is scheduled to enter service, Boeing Co. (BA) will introduce the 7E7, a midsize jet the company says will offer a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency over existing jets of comparable size. For airlines, there's no miracle diet in sight. By Carol Matlack in Paris


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