Toulouse : Birthplace of the Airbus A 380

The aeronautical industry has long dreamt of it. Airbus has done it! France’s Prime Minister recently opened the assembly line for the future Airbus A380, a vast cathedral-like factory for the world’s largest commercial airliner in the history of civil aviation, in Blagnac near Toulouse in southwest France. The figures are mind-blowing: the Jean-Luc Lagardère plant, which houses the assembly line for this exceptional aircraft, is a staggering 490 metres long by 250 metres wide and 46 metres high. Airbus must secure sales of 250 airliners to break even on its €11 billion investment.

The gigantic ten-hectare purpose-built plant in Toulouse illustrates the enormity of the challenge Airbus has undertaken to assemble the world’s largest commercial airliner, the record-breaking A380. At the plant’s inauguration ceremony, France’s Prime Minister hailed “the world’s largest airliner and Europe’s largest aeronautics factory” and Airbus President and CEO, Noël Forgeard, proudly stated, “This factory is a cathedral built around the aeroplane.”

The enormous 150,000 m2 assembly and testing plant was built on 50 hectares of land in 2002 and 2003. Christened the Jean-Luc Lagardère plant, the new factory is slated to employ 2,000 people by 2008. Why Jean-Luc Lagardère? Because the group’s late French Chairman played a decisive role in convincing his peers of the urgent need to launch the Airbus A380, the new keystone of the Airbus legacy.

The Jean-Luc Lagardère plant is built on the 220-hectare Aéroconstellation industrial estate to the north-east of Toulouse-Blagnac airport, near Airbus’ head office. To accommodate the A380, Aéroconstellation has been fully equipped with the facilities required for the construction and maintenance of aircraft of this scale.

Just a wing’s length from Blagnac airport, the 250,000 m2 complex is the height of technological excess: put up in under two years, the plant contains 32,000 tonnes of steel, “four times more than the Eiffel tower and as much as the Millau viaduct,” boasts Airbus. The building’s architecture lends the plant a remarkably aesthetic fluidity: the grey-blue metallic shell contrasts beautifully with glass and polycarbonate, while an undulating roof strikingly caps the mirrored façade. All in the hope that the plant will become a booming tourist site for industry and technology aficionados, welcoming several thousand employees and busloads of visitors through its gigantic doors daily.

The A380 adventure began in December 2000 when Airbus decided to add to its family of planes fathered by the A300 in the early 1970s by creating the largest double-decker passenger carrier in the world.

Devised to meet the market’s needs and designed in close liaison with the world’s major airlines, the A380 is essentially a European product. “What are building together not only represents a magnificent new page in the history of aviation, but a glorious new chapter for Europe, a Europe of which we can be very proud,” says Noël Forgeard.

Different countries have been assigned to produce the airliner’s different components based on their areas of expertise. The British are manufacturing the wings and the Spanish the empennage, while the French are developing the cockpit and sharing the work on the fuselage sections with the Germans. The first components for the mammoth jet went into production at the different European plants in 2003 and have been arriving at the Toulouse site since spring of this year. Assembly of the airliners will then commence, scheduled to reach the rate of four airliners per month by 2008.

A total of some 200 suppliers have been called on to produce nearly 40% of the A380’s components. While the majority are based in Europe, suppliers in the US and Australia are also involved. By the second quarter of 2003, at the peak of the project’s development, 6,400 engineers were working full-time on the endeavour.

The new 555-seater jet is scheduled to enter service in the second quarter of 2006 and looks set to give the Boeing 747 more than a run for its money. Yet Airbus must secure sales of 250 airliners to break even on its €11 billion investment. So far, Airbus has 129 firm orders and 52 options on its books. More orders are expected soon, and the European aircraft manufacturer is counting on significant growth in the market for large-carrier airliners. The first A380 was powered up in July 2004 and ground tests will start later this year, “First of all, to fire up the engines and then reach take-off speed to get her nose off the ground,” reports Airbus.

Toulouse has fast become the epicentre of the European aeronautical industry.

Source : Actualité en France Annik Bianchini

Last modified on 20/04/2005

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