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OIA gets ready for a big bird

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Stretching nearly the length of a football field, Airbus' new A380 "superjumbo" jet will be the biggest thing flying when it enters service in about a year.

Built to carry 555 people in three classes on two decks, the A380 is big enough for extras such as conference rooms, private cabins, even casinos.

But a plane that big can't land at just any airport.

It needs runways that are 50 feet wider than typical landing strips. It needs wider taxiways, and boarding gates with extra bridges to handle the crowds.

So, in the United States, big airports from Orlando to Los Angeles are spending hundreds of millions of dollars getting ready for it.

Orlando International's executive director says airports that can handle the larger plane may attract more international traffic, which fell sharply with the recession and terrorist hijackings of 2001 and has been slow to recover.

Virgin Atlantic, which will outfit its A380s with extras such as casinos and gyms, is the only carrier with service to Orlando that has announced plans to use the planes on some routes to the United States. The airline has ordered six of the aircraft for delivery beginning in 2008, with options on six more.

In the United States, Virgin will operate the A380 at first on flights to Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. It may eventually use A380s on its Orlando routes, but a spokeswoman says the airline doesn't have a timetable.

The aircraft, in the works since 2000, won't be ready for delivery for about a year.

So far, no U.S. passenger airline has ordered the plane, which was unveiled Tuesday in a lavish ceremony at Airbus' headquarters in Toulouse, France.

U.S. couriers UPS and FedEx have ordered the A380, but an Orlando airport spokeswoman said it isn't clear yet whether either would use the plane in Orlando.

Orlando International, built on the site of a former Air Force base, has a wide runway that was originally built to allow big military planes and can handle the A380.

But it still plans to spend about $20 million on improvements such as wider taxiways and an additional loading bridge.

Ordinarily, fliers leave a plane through a single bridge, or jetway, but airport Executive Director Bill Jennings said the A380 needs at least two.

"It would take too long to get 600 people off through one door," he said.

Jennings said Orlando's airport also could attract A380 service from additional carriers if other U.S. airports can't accommodate the larger planes.

But officials at several major airports say they will be ready.

Miami International also has a runway wide enough to handle the A380. Three of the airport's carriers -- Virgin, Air France and Lufthansa -- have ordered the plane, though none has announced plans for service to Miami, airport spokesman Marc Henderson said.

New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport plans to spend $120 million on upgrades.

Kennedy Airport's renovations will include widening one runway from 150 feet to 200 feet and strengthening runway bridges over two highways, spokesman Tony Ciavolella said.

That work is already under way, he said, and "will be completed by the time the first plane arrives," in 2006 or 2007.

Los Angeles International Airport, meanwhile, will spend $53 million. Officials expect Australian airline Qantas to arrive with the plane in November 2006.

"We can actually land the plane," airport spokesman Harold Johnson said. But the airport will spend $10 million remodeling some boarding gates and $2.3 million strengthening a tunnel beneath two of its runways.

The A380 weighs 1.2 million pounds -- far more than the plane's closest competitor, the 875,000-pound Boeing 747.

Officials at San Francisco International say they don't need to spend a dime on upgrades.

"We can handle one today," spokesman Michael McCarron said. The airport opened a new terminal four years ago with double bridges at its gates, he said.

But some major airports will not be getting A380 service, at least not soon.

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport is undergoing a $6 billion expansion to accommodate more traffic, but it won't be able to handle the A380, spokeswoman Felicia Browder said. Atlanta has nonstop service to Europe, but no carriers have plans to use the new plane on those routes, she said.

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good article, heard lots about the new A380 but never realized it was larger then what most airports could currently accomodate. That is big. Gyms on the VA ones thats gonna be sweet!

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