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Gaming Guru

Richard N. Velotta

Airbus Wouldn't Fly in Las Vegas

1 February 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Las Vegas puts out the welcome mat for more than 37 million people a year, and about half of them arrive by air.

But when it comes to the world's biggest airliner, Clark County officials have a different message: Stay away.

The aviation world was in awe when the mammoth Airbus A380 developed by European consortium Airbus S.A.S. took off for the first time last April.

The two-deck jumbo jet, the newest rival to the Boeing 747, is being touted by Airbus as one solution to the growing problem of congestion at the world's airports, since the A380 would be capable of flying 555 passengers on one flight.

It seems like a perfect match for Las Vegas.

With a growing number of tourists every year and the challenge of filling tens of thousands of new hotel rooms that will come on line in the next decade, wouldn't the A380 be a perfect fit here?

No, says Clark County Aviation Director Randy Walker.

Not only is McCarran International Airport not planning modifications to accommodate the A380, but Walker says the plane would not be welcome.

It's simply too big and the cost of improvements to bring it in for the minimal number of flights that would be made are too great to justify. The hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to retrofit McCarran -- and putting up with air traffic delays the jet would create -- make the appearance of the A380 at the local airport highly unlikely.

"We were kicking around designing one gate at Terminal 3 (a planned $1.6 billion project that would open at McCarran in 2011) to handle the A380, but there are just too many other variables that don't pencil out," Walker said.

Developing a gate to accommodate an A380 is just one of the problems of playing host to the jet, which is expected to begin commercial service in March or April.

Because the jet has two decks, it would require at least two loading bridges to allow passengers to get on and off. And they would have to be on two levels and be longer than the jet bridges that currently are used at McCarran.

Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant with the Boyd Group, Evergreen, Colo., explained that unlike most jets that park nose-first at the gate, the A380 probably would have to park parallel to it so that more than one bridge could link the terminal with the plane.

Currently, the largest aircraft stopping in Las Vegas are 747s operated by Virgin Atlantic Airways and Japan Airlines, and they use two bridges to deplane passengers.

"I know that I'd hate to be the 555th person to get off after I've been flying for 12 hours," Walker said.

He noted other changes the A380 would require.

Underground tanks for jet fuel have to be designed and placed in certain configurations to make sure the plane could be refueled efficiently. Boyd pointed out that some airports are even looking at the possible problem of "sewer surge" at their terminal buildings -- more bathrooms and increased plumbing might be needed to handle all of the folks who would use the restroom after exiting the jet.

"Where's the first place most people go when they get off the plane after a long flight?" he asked. "Remember, we're talking about more than 500 people on one flight."

When McCarran was considering the prospect of the big jet, one of the questions on Walker's checklist was whether the tunnels beneath McCarran's two east-west runways could hold the 600 tons a fully loaded A380 would weigh. If the jet were to be allowed, that issue would require more study.

But probably the biggest problem the A380 would present to McCarran are the flight delays it would create. Walker calls it "the rat through the snake."

McCarran was designed for "Group 5 aircraft," the largest of which is the 747. The A380 is a Group 6 plane, the largest category.

Because the 261-foot wingspan of the A380 would be wider than the width of the airport's runways and taxi strips, all other jets would have to be out of the way whenever a jet would arrive or depart to meet the Federal Aviation Administration's safety separation clearances. Traffic would be disrupted and other planes would have to stay clear of the jumbo jet whenever it lands, taxis or takes off.

And that, Walker said, would produce flight delays, especially if the plane were to come in at busy times of the day.

"It's hard to justify a delay for thousands of passengers on other flights and give priority to the 500 on one jet," Walker said.

So far, no airline has asked to bring an A380 to Las Vegas. In fact, only one airline that currently serves McCarran -- Virgin Atlantic -- is even buying the jet. As of December, Airbus had received 159 orders for the plane, with Virgin Atlantic planning to buy six. Federal Express and UPS, which fly freight into McCarran, each have ordered 10 cargo versions of the plane.

The wild card in the equation is China. Nevada tourism leaders are courting several Chinese airlines to offer nonstop service to Las Vegas. Among them are China Southern Airlines, which has ordered five A380s. Other Chinese carriers reportedly are kicking the tires.

Walker said if he receives a request to accommodate the plane, he would say no. Most airlines, he said, understand the infrastructure limitations and plan to use other planes -- 747s, 777s and even the now-in-production 787s.

"I think the Boeing 787 will be great aircraft for Las Vegas," Walker said. "It has the potential to do for international service what the 737 has done for domestic service to Las Vegas."

Walker said the A380 picture could change in the years ahead, as the proposed new Southern Nevada airport in the Ivanpah Valley is being built to specifications for Group 6 aircraft. That airport isn't expected to be on line until 2017 at the earliest.

But by then, it will be known whether the A380 is a hit or a flop and whether other big jets are on the horizon.

Few U.S. airports are gearing up for the A380. According to the FAA, New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and the major international airports in San Francisco; Los Angeles; Miami; Anchorage, Alaska; and Memphis, Tenn. (the home of Federal Express) are committed to infrastructure work to accommodate the big jet.