It’s the largest commercial passenger aircraft ever built, and it’s big enough to produce massive logistical headaches to airport managers worldwide.
The Airbus Industries A380 superjumbo jet can carry up to 555 passengers in a traditional three-class configuration. Make the entire plane economy class, and it can hold as many as 853 people.
The plane, which weighs 305 tons empty and first became a part of airline fleets in 2007, has two decks of passenger seating the entire length of the aircraft.
Some airlines equip their A380s with lie-flat seats, suites, lounges and beauty salons to emphasize their comfort.
Airbus delivered 128 of the planes to customers since 2007 and has another 196 of them on order. Emirates is Airbus’ best customer with 44 orders. Later this year, Australia-based Qantas will begin flying the longest air route ever, with flights on A380s between Sydney and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Airlines that have or are getting them that already fly to Las Vegas include Korean Air and British Airways.
It’s true that when Airbus was designing its different families of aircraft that it changed its numbering sequence, going from A310, A320, A330 and A340 straight to A380. The reason: The 8 in A380 is a pictograph of the double-deck profile of the plane. Airbus officials also knew that the biggest market for the A380 would be Asia, where some cultures revere eight as a lucky number.
McCarran International is among the airports that has wrestled with the idea of allowing A380s to provide service to Las Vegas.
AND SO, THE STORY BEGINS
The discussion got new life recently when reports surfaced that Korean Air was considering flying A380s on its Seoul-to-Las Vegas route. Korean Air already flies wide-bodied Boeing 777s between Seoul and Las Vegas. The story making the rounds was that Korean was going to establish a partnership with Southwest Airlines to transport Asian customers through Southwest’s network and that Southwest customers could connect seamlessly to Asia on Korean’s network.
The idea seemed credible since Southwest has had some short-lived relationships with Westjet for flights to and from Canada and with Volaris linking Southwest with Mexico.
But the reports apparently are unfounded. Korean has denied making such a request to fly A380s to McCarran. And Southwest, which is making headway in flying its own international routes, has nothing planned with Korean.
“From time to time, we do speak with airlines about future agreements,” said Dan Lansdon, a spokesman for Southwest. “We are always looking at what makes sense from an economics angle and what makes sense for our customers. There are currently no agreements in place with Korean, and we’re not anticipating one in the near future.”
McCarran officials say not only has Korean not made a request, but no airline has asked to fly an A380 here.
“These kinds of things come up once in a while,” said Clark County Aviation Director Rosemary Vassiliadis in an interview. “You’ll hear that we’ve denied allowing them. The fact is no airline has even approached us about it.”
Not that McCarran would necessarily allow one if asked. Vassiliadis said the airport would have to consider a number of factors before green-lighting flights to the Las Vegas airport.
Among those considerations would be how the airport would manage the jet’s movements on the field once it arrived, where it would park and what day and time it would arrive and depart.
McCarran makes similar evaluations anytime a new series of flights are planned. As for large jets, McCarran has vetted scheduled arrivals of Boeing 747s, which are slightly smaller than A380s with a classic three-class configuration designed for 416 passengers.
Currently, British Airways flies a 747 from London’s Heathrow Airport to Las Vegas daily and Virgin Atlantic brings six flights a week from London’s Gatwick Airport.
IT’S LANDED; NOW WHAT?
The biggest problem in bringing an A380 to McCarran would be what to do with it once it gets on the ground.
McCarran has more than enough runway length for the plane to land and take off. At 14,512 feet — the third longest serving commercial carriers in the United States — McCarran’s runway routinely accommodates big jets.
One of McCarran’s E gates at Terminal 3 is adequate for loading and unloading passengers from an A380, but it could take awhile.
Airports that have been modified to accommodate the big plane have built two-level jet bridges to load and unload passengers. At the far west end of Terminal 3, the airport could connect bridges to the front and rear of the plane so boarding passengers would have to use one of the aircraft’s two stairways to access the upper deck.
One of the elements McCarran would have to consider on an A380 request is whether customs officials would be able to handle the massive volume of passengers that would have to be processed. It would probably come down to whether other foreign flights are coming in at around the same time and how the agency is staffed at the time of the proposed flight.
The biggest problem at McCarran is that the taxi strips leading to the gates are too close to each other for safe clearance with other planes.
The A380 is considered a Design Group 6 aircraft, while the 747 is a Design Group 5. The different designations address tail heights, lengths and wingspans of different aircraft types.
The wingspan of an A380 is nearly 262 feet; a 747 is 224 feet. Aviation pioneer Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose wouldn’t be welcome at McCarran because its wingspan is nearly 320 feet.
“These types of planes have wingspans so wide that, when taxiing, they can intrude onto other taxiways and into some runway safety areas,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. “But there are ways around the problem.”
Gregor said the A380 wheelbase is so long that it’s difficult for the planes to turn on tight taxiways and the wheels could accidentally crush lights along the side of the pavement.
Gregor explained that some airports use “follow-me” vehicles that help guide planes along a safe route.
Gregor also said Group 6 jets need extra separation between them and the plane taking off behind them. That’s because the air behind the powerful engine thrust can be extremely turbulent. Most airports observe a separation of 3 to 6 miles between takeoffs. Group 6 planes need a separation of 8 to 10 miles, and that means takeoff delays.
IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE, BUT …
It’s not impossible for an A380 to come to Las Vegas, just inconvenient. In fact, a larger plane — the Russian Antonov An-225 Mriya — flew into McCarran in April 2004. The one-of-a-kind, 314-ton, six-engine cargo plane stopped in Las Vegas to deliver a transformer for a power plant.
Gregor said Los Angeles International Airport handles about 14 A380 flights a day. While airlines could ask McCarran to be a divert airport for flights to Los Angeles or San Francisco, none has. Currently, San Francisco International serves as the divert airport for Los Angeles.
Vassiliadis and her predecessor, Randall Walker, have made it clear that McCarran has little interest in being a divert airport because there’s nothing in it for Las Vegas except logistical problems.
“If there’s an emergency, that’s a different story,” Vassiliadis said. “But just to be listed as a divert airport, we don’t get anything out of it, except problems.
“We’re here to support the tourism industry, and with an overseas flight the passengers wouldn’t get off and stay here. Why should we create flight delays for our regular customers?”