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Is the Airbus A380 a plane in search of a mission?

According to a report in The Straits Times, if not for the recession, traffic controllers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) might have to turn away the A380 because it presents so many problems for the airport.

Qantas currently is the only airline flying A380s into LAX.

The main problem with the A380 at LAX is that the Superjumbo's wingspan is just too wide for existing runways. Whenever one taxis for takeoff, it requires a special escort all around the jet, and planes that would normally use adjoining taxiways cannot do so because the A380's wingtips come uncomfortably close to passing planes. Not only does this cause air traffic slowdown on takeoffs, a similar level of disruption occurs on landings, when all ground traffic must come to a halt.

And just how big is big? The A380's wingspan is 50 feet longer than that of the Boeing 747. It also weighs 1.2 million pounds, or 30 percent more than the 747. It carries 555 passengers, although it can be configured to hold more than 800. Talk about putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Yet another problem with the A380's super-wide wingspan is that airport officials worry that the jet's outside engines will kick up debris at the edges of the currently too-narrow runways - debris that could be sucked up by its own engines or by the engines of a trailing aircraft.

It makes you wonder about the rationale for the A380. Maybe a plane this big makes sense for super-long-distance overseas flights like London to Shanghai, but can the case be made for long flights within the U.S., such as Denver to Chicago or even JFK to LAX?

The selling point for the A380 has been that you'd be able to fit more passengers into a flight, taking pressure off the air traffic system because you'd need fewer planes and fewer flights. But bringing ground traffic to a screeching halt every time an A380 takes off or lands calls into question where planning to accommodate the plane broke down.

Sure, while having one large plane replace two smaller ones provides efficiencies, it also limits scheduling flexibility and imposes constraints on airports that are not prepared to handle anything as big as an A380.

In fact, one wonders what the folks at LAX were thinking when they decided to open the airport to A380 flights when so many infrastructure improvements remain to be done to accommodate the Superjumbo. While LAX had the better part of a decade to prepare for the arrival of Airbus's megaplane, the airport still has many upgrades to make.

So do other U.S. airports. Interestingly, news reports say that Qantas is considering shifting its A380 flights to San Francisco, which, if true, would be a complete about-face from the upbeat media play that the A380 received when it launched service into LAX in October 2008.

We'll just have to wait and see if the long-term viability of the A380 will truly ever get off the ground.

Airline Futurist • Miami •