Online Geography Resources
The Aviation Industry and Globalization
The Guardian , Thursday February 23, 2006.
West Factory, Broughton, North Wales ... the wings are milled, baked at 250C, wired, fully assembled and tested. Photograph: David Levene
They have 32,000 major parts, 750,000 rivets, 23 miles of wiring and, when assembled, a pair will have a span wider than a football pitch. But if the wings of the Airbus A380, the biggest passenger plane ever built, are unprecedented in scale, it is the journey they take from north Wales to the company's HQ in southern France that is truly astonishing. Aida Edemariam follows one wing on its epic voyage, and traces an extraordinary tale of engineering imagination
At 10:18am on April 27 last year, a rather dumpy, whale-shaped aeroplane taxied sedately towards the head of a runway. It paused, catching its breath. The 45,000 people clustered in the surrounding fields held theirs. Then it gathered itself up, roared down the Tarmac, and at 10:29.32 exactly, rose nonchalantly into the clear sky above Toulouse, acquiring, as it entered its element, a grace and elegance it had not had on the ground. There were cheers, applause, some tears. Many of the spectators worked for Airbus, and had been waiting for this moment for 17 years. In the vast hangars in Broughton, north Wales, where the wings that lifted the A380 into the air were built, thousands more gazed transfixed at television screens. "You did have a lump in your throat," says Andy Rush, a 38-year-old technician. "If you talked to a group of the guys" - he gestures at the blue-uniformed men tending prodigious sweeps of metal - "they'd say, 'Oh, it was just another flight'. But if you speak to individuals, they'd say what I've said."
Over the next 20 years air travel is predicted to increase threefold. About 70% of flights will be from just 25 airports, many of which, such as Heathrow, are already so congested they can't take any more planes. Airbus's argument is that if the planes are bigger, they won't have to. It predicts that 10% of commercial aircraft flying in 2023 will be large aircraft on long-haul routes, ie A380s and 747s; this translates as 22% of the global market for aircraft with more than 100 seats. That's a market of $416bn to play for, a little more than twice the GDP of Norway.
But first they have to build the A380s. A totally new craft, on such a scale, has required new, purpose-designed factories right across Europe. But how to get the parts to final assembly in Toulouse, where all Airbus aircraft become whole? The sections - fuselages, wings, cockpits - are usually flown in, but even the specially adapted Beluga freight planes, with their high, domed foreheads, aren't big enough to transport everything.
The solution is labour-intensive, idiosyncratic, and at times awe-inspiring: the parts leave their factories and travel on specially designed trailers, barges and ships, on land, on rivers, on the high seas, in an epic series of journeys that culminate in an unprecedented convoi exceptionnel of slow-moving lorries, loaded with sections of aircraft, crawling through the south of France by night. The system is a triumph of brinksmanship (there are places where only a few centimetres separate success from failure) and logistics, and one of the most isophisticated transport webs ever devised. And one of the most difficult, delicate parts of it begins in an unassuming corner of industrial north Wales.
Hi-tech assembly: Broughton
The process begins with skin-milling, where single pieces of aluminium alloy up to 35m in length are milled by machines that display the contradiction that applies throughout this process: the components involved may be huge - an A380's wingspan is nearly 5m wider than a professional football pitch - but the attention paid must be minute. Weight is a paramount consideration, and so every single unnecessary scrap of metal must be milled away. So is safety, of course, and for that, says Robert Barlow-Kay, an aeronautics integration engineer based in Filton, Airbus UK's headquarters near Bristol, "we need to be right, within millimetres". When the wings are finally attached to the fuselage in Toulouse, lasers will be used to make sure that the degree of accuracy is even greater than this.
After they are milled, the panels are creep-formed. One of the great challenges of aeronautics is imagining how metal will behave 35,000ft above the earth, and these wings will, on take-off, twist as well as rise at their tips by a full four metres. The panels must be curved in anticipation of this, and in creep-forming they are placed on moulds, then moved into the maw of one of the largest ovens in Europe. They remain there for 24 hours, baking at 250C, after which the qualities of the alloy have changed, and the shape is baked permanent.
An aircraft wing, as well as providing lift, is also a large container: most of the fuel that can take the A380 to its maximum range of 15,000km - theoretically an empty jet could travel from London to Sydney without refueling - is stored in the wings. In an A380 this means 120,000 litres of flammable fluid, weighing 115 metric tonnes, per wing. It fulfills a secondary function as ballast that can be moved around from root to tip to tail in order to trim the aircraft during flight. The wing is also, of course, integral to braking and steering, so it is home to more than 23 miles of wiring and three hydraulics systems. There are three because "you can't pull an aircraft to the side of a road and fix it", notes Henry Ashton, another aeronautics integration engineer from Filton, "so everything has to have built-in redundancy". At the root end, closest to the body, the wing is 11m wide and 3m tall; here will be fitted American-made air-generation units the size and weight of small cars.
The wing, some of which is made of state-of the-art carbon composites rather than aluminium, will eventually contain 32,000 major parts, excluding fasteners. It will be held together by laser welding and by 750,000 bolts and rivets, every single one of which - as is true for every part of this aircraft - is accompanied, in the name of absolute accountability, by paperwork about its origins: the supplier, the exact batch of base metal, the date and time of manufacture. So if anything malfunctions under temperatures from 45C on the ground to -53C at cruising altitude, or because of a freak gust bending a wing more than 6m, or the day-to-day fatigue of bouncing along runways during the 250,000km of the aircraft's 40-year lifetime, the cause can be traced, nearly to the molecule.
In equipping, the last stage, eight wings - four pairs - sit in ragged formation, each accompanied by a sign announcing its destination: Emirates, Qantas. Men in Airbus-blue tend to them, scrabbling inside manholes at the root ends, consulting complicated diagrams, dabbing, carefully and intently and with tiny paintbrushes, at rivets that have had to be replaced.
Simon Baker, aged 46, attaching flight-test instrumentation, has, ever since his father took him to the Farnborough airshow when he was a child, wanted to be doing more or less what he is doing now - helping to build the most advanced aeroplane in the world (and scaring himself stupid on his time off, he says, in gliders and on motorbikes: "It has to be done"). He joined the RAF as a trainee technician when he was 16 and has worked on planes ever since; he applied especially to be on the A380 and worked on the first one that flew. But he seems unusual in his excitement about flying and his understanding of how the whole project fits together. Some of his colleagues exist in a 21st-century version of the blind man and the elephant: Andy Rush, who came to this after years in double-glazing, is only now, after six years at Airbus and a trip to Toulouse, getting any sense of how it all links up, how crucial his specific task - helium testing for leaks - really is. "We often feel we make wings, but we don't make aircraft," he says. And yet what is also palpable everywhere in West Factory is a sense articulated by Baker: "This is serious stuff. I'm very proud to be part of it."
Down to the river
Nearly two decades later, here they are. An 80-tonne crane is required to lift the starboard wing, now shrink-wrapped in white plastic, out of its casings and on to the jig that will cradle it all the way to France. The jig is then placed on a 96-wheel, 200-tonne MPV, or multi-purpose vehicle - an unmanned vehicle capable of moving an entire air traffic control tower - that will take it on the first stage of its journey, the 1.7km to the river Dee. The MPV is guided by electrical cables buried in a groove in the road, and by Steve Johnson, 36, from Buckley, walking backwards, twiddling a couple of knobs on a console hung around his neck. "I never had a remote-controlled car when I was a kid," he grins. (This is very much a boys' world. Over nearly three weeks I meet, or see from a distance, hundreds of people involved in this project; only eight - three of whom are in public relations - are women.)
Beeping and flashing, the wing begins to move, slow and steady, into rural Wales. A smell of woodsmoke and cows. But then a halt. The B5129 is meant to be closed, but the factory is having a shift change, so we wait for 600 or so cars to make their way home. Six thousand people work in Broughton and 5,800 in Filton, near Bristol, where Airbus UK is managed, the wings designed and some wing components built. The A380 directly or indirectly sustains 100,000 jobs in the UK; this is excluding the 14,000 people involved in manufacturing the Rolls-Royce engines that will power some, but not all, of the A380s. More than 400 UK companies have been awarded contracts worth £7.5 bn, a figure set to double to £15bn over the life of the programme, which, as it progresses, will push Airbus's contribution to UK net exports from £1bn to more than £1.5bn per annum. According to the House of Commons trade and industry select committee report into the aviation industry in March 2005, the UK aerospace industry provides direct and indirect employment in the UK for around 255,000 people. Aerospace accounts for 0.4% of total UK employment and 3% of UK manufacturing employment.
Another brief wait to let a local farmer mend his fence and we're moving again, rolling at a walking pace through stubby brown fields, over a bridge that seems, initially, too small, past a messy lot where a group of men stand beside a smouldering fire and a disintegrating MiG jet fighter, lounging, smoking, watching. A sudden flutter of startled pheasants. And then, in sight of the Dee, the wing is parked for the night, a white apostrophe in a grey-green landscape.
It is already exhibiting a quality that becomes more pronounced throughout its journey: a total change of character and size depending on the backdrop. When we return the next evening at sunset, it is floodlit and seems far bigger, a flying machine straining for take-off in its own right, both totally modern and as ancient as a pterodactyl. A hunter's sudden gunshot nearby makes the photographer jump. But all that happens is that the wing is moved by MPV on to the Afon Dyfrdwy, a specially built river craft - everything in this journey is specially built - to wait for the tide. The wing looks caged now. The moon rises huge and full. A small dark plane flies across it.
Catching the tide
At first, every stage was attended by curious onlookers and though there's less of that now, there's often someone watching, mainly to see if they're going to clear the bridges. They've occasionally been attacked by airguns, had stuff thrown at them; they've had to have a policeman on board in the school holidays and police on the bridges. The Wirral peninsula used to be known for wrecking - luring ships aground then picking up the pieces - and the instinct seems to have been passed on. But on the whole the passages are quiet. The Afon Dyfrdwy is settling in as one of the sights of the river, like a waxwing or a great crested grebe. On the bank a father and son, cycling past on the river path, point at this vision of a wing afloat.
One of the main issues here, and especially in the Dee estuary, home to more than 120,000 water birds in the winter and more than 400 grey seals, has been that no one disturbs the wildlife. The Afon Dyfrdwy is flat-bottomed, extending only 2m below the waterline, but it must video the wash on either side of the vessel on every trip, so that it can judged.
Environmental concerns dog all aircraft projects as a matter of course. As well as claiming that because of the A380's larger size fewer planes need to fly, Airbus also argues that the new design, with its light carbon-composites, achieves a fuel burn of 2.9l per passenger per 100km, equivalent to that of a small diesel car, and 12% less per seat than the 747-400. Environmental groups are unconvinced. "What this will lead to is the price of flying falling even further, because fuel is a big proportion of the cost at the moment," says Stephen Tindale, CEO of Greenpeace. "If you make planes more fuel-efficient, people will end up flying more, which is exactly what's happened with cars."
Jeff Gazzard, a board member of the Aviation Environment Federation, points to the conclusions of the United Nations 1999 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, one of which was that even if better aircraft design and engine performance improved pollution by 1-2% over 30 years, the effect of increased greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a worsening climate change impact of 3-4% in the same period. And, of course, if the tipping point - the threshold beyond which we can no longer halt the effect of global warming - is, as many argue, 2050, building a carbon-fuel-burning aircraft with a lifespan of 40 years is hardly a step in the right direction.
Mostyn may be a wildlife haven, but its vistas of power stations and pylons and grey water are not exactly picturesque. James Walker talks his father in. "Slow down a bit, dad, you're flying in. Slow down. Stern over starboard, slightly. That'll do, dad. That's it, she's in now." It's a tight run. The tide is receding like water down a plughole. Another minute and we wouldn't have made it.
Out at sea
This is where the French side of the operation begins to take over. Although subcontracted, the ship and crew are French; Commandant Franck Le Gras is from Brittany and has worked for the company since 1985. He shows us round the wide, Starship Enterprise deck, five tall floors above sea level, while his sanguine second-in-command, Gaultier Padellec, also from Brittany, oversees the loading and the noisy chaining down of the wings. Not for the first time in the past couple of weeks, the figure of Gulliver comes to mind, pegged spreadeagled to the ground and climbed all over by bustling Lilliputians.
The pan-European structure of Airbus is a unique thing. It was officially formed in 1970 as a consortium between France's Aerospatiale and Deutsche Airbus; Spain's CASA joined shortly after, but British Aerospace, influenced by the doubts of Tony Benn, held back until 1979. Final assembly was always in Toulouse, but each company operated fairly independently until, in 2001, Airbus became a single, fully integrated company, 80% owned by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), a merger of the French, German and Spanish interests, and 20% by BAe Systems, the successor to British Aerospace. Airbus has an annual turnover of ?22.3bn; in 2004 it earned ?1.9bn, and spent ?1.7bn on R&D. It employs 55,000 people, of more than 80 nationalities. It's all very different to the Concorde project, when nationalism reigned. A Concorde had to be either French or British, so there were two production lines and components easily available off the shelf elsewhere, such as in the US, had to be made in France or Britain from scratch, contributing to the great cost and time spent building it. A grounded Concorde at Filton and one in Toulouse are reminders of a kind of grand folly.
In his book The World We're In, Will Hutton argues that Airbus is a salutary lesson in how capitalism the European way - as opposed to the American - can actually work. While Boeing has, since the late 80s, been increasingly at the mercy of the short-termism of capital markets, and thus less able to invest in speculative R&D, the A380, the A320 (single-aisle, with 100-220 seats) and the forthcoming A350 (wide body and long range, capable of taking 253 passengers up to 16,300km), were made possible by repayable government loans. This has fuelled a long-bubbling resentment from its competitor - "For Airbus it's been a case of we're going to launch an aeroplane and we're going to send our guys over with a truck to pick up the cash," as ex-Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher grumpily put it to the Sunday Times - that last year resulted in the US formally launching a World Trade Organisation case against the EU. Airbus and others in turn point out that Boeing is the recipient of unrepayable billions in research grants and defence contracts, and that they have repaid the loans and in fact earned the governments money. "There are parts of Europe that don't work, and parts that do work, and some sectors where Europe is better, and this is one of them," says Hutton now. "It's a very precious thing we've built over the past 30 to 40 years."
The proof is in the balance sheets and in the prospects for the future. When Airbus began, Boeing was a de facto monopoly civilian aircraft supplier; in 2004 Airbus outstripped Boeing for the first time in terms of number of aircraft delivered and orders taken. For a long time Boeing had no answer to the A380; then at the end of last year it launched the 747-8, the Dreamliner, which carries 400-500 passengers. Airbus plays this down, says Max Kingsley-Jones, commercial aviation editor at Flight International magazine, but it "no longer has the market to itself". It will now have to sell more A380s at a discount, a situation aggravated by the fact that while it has 159 firm orders, 43 of them from Emirates, it is now six months behind schedule and suppliers and industry watchers suspect that the offical "break-even figure" of 250 aircraft is too low. There is also no guarantee, as Flight International put it, that "capacity constraints really will drive carriers to larger aircraft". Airbus may deny it, but the A380 is a huge gamble. "At stake," Charles Champion, then head of the A380 programme, said last year, "is the future of the company."
The Ville de Bordeaux is meant to leave at 2am, but the weather in Mostyn turns ugly. Everything is lashed down with chains as thick as an arm, and stabilisers jut from the sides of the ship, but there is no sense that the multi-million pound cargo is at risk, so she waits. A day later the Irish Sea is still rough with a 35-knot southwesterly and a swell of four metres that dies only as the ship rounds the Scilly Isles. Because of its boxy shape, designed to accommodate six sections of an outsize aeroplane but not necessarily to cut a delicate swathe through water, the Ville de Bordeaux is prone to drifting in high wind, but at an average rate of 16 knots, she chugs through the Irish Sea, dips a toe briefly into the Atlantic, then sails into the Bay of Biscay. By the time she reaches St Nazaire on the French coast, where she picks up a complete forward fuselage with cockpit and a complete centre fuselage, it is calm and clear and extremely cold.
Bordeaux and bridges
The next morning, at 8am, the starboard wing reaches the halfway point of this leg: Bordeaux. The river is wide here, lined by imposing 18th-century architecture and spanned by the 17-arched Pont de Pierre, built by Napoleon to celebrate his victories in the Spanish campaigns; now it's filled by the trams and cars and mopeds of Monday-morning rush hour. The Brion looks halting, dilatory, as it waits for the tide, then passes uneventfully under a central arch and proceeds into a red-gold dawn. "What we really wait for," says Suzie Lespinace, 54, who lives in Langon but teaches here in a room overlooking the river, "is the fuselage." It only just clears the bridge. Airbus's plans for the A380 were big dinner-party news here. Were they going to take it down the river, or the canals, in which case they'd have to knock down all the old bridges? They chose the river.
But the huge size of the A380 has more implications than its idiosyncratic route to a factory. All airports that intend to receive A380s need to adapt for them: they may need bigger departure lounges; possibly double-decker jetways, to decrease the amount of time it will take to load and unload passengers, baggage carousels lengthened by up to 30m: BAA, reports Flight International magazine, has spent £450m making Heathrow A380-friendly. It has been reported that runways will need to be lengthened and strengthened to take the extra weight; Richard Carcaillet, director of product marketing for the A380, insists this is not the case, that the weight is spread by having more wheels and that the A380 in fact takes off and lands in less than usual space.
There are other worries: that the wave vortices that follow such a large craft could damage houses below and increase the necessary gap between planes, currently three to eight nautical miles, to a minimum of 10, thus cancelling any advantage of increased size. "That's what they said about the 747," sniffs Carcaillet, "but it wasn't the case." The New Scientist argued recently that A380s would have to make more emergency landings because more people meant more chance of serious medical incidents, which would require more airports adapted to take them. There is also the issue of evacuating 550 people in the regulation 90 seconds.
On the road [one week later]
Over the next hour, more than 90 people materialise out of the surrounding streets. The Mullers, visiting their son from Germany; he works at Airbus. A group of giddy German aerospace engineering students. A cluster of tough L?gnac teenagers in hoodies and bandanas, spitting and smoking, one of whom, Micka?Portes, has seen this cavalcade 10 times. Four production inspectors and their manager from Qantas; the sections coming through are to be their first delivery and they're on a celebratory night out. "It's like a carnival parade," says Mike Brackstone, in flat cap and Burberry scarf, who's also seen this sight before. "A procession."
Then a harbinger - a battered white van carrying a sign: Convoi Exceptionnel. A constellation of winking lights, a bark on a megaphone, a cry of "Regarde!" and the wings, preceded by gendarmerie on motorbikes, come into view as if entering a stage. Tipped up on their sides, high and proud as ballet dancers lifted by their partners, they soar above the two-storey buildings.
The sight is both absurd and completely thrilling. For some reason this entry, out of the dark, near the end of such a long and tricky journey, plugs straight into the electric romance of flight, the romance that powered Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Antoine de Saint-Exup?; a romance lost in this age of easyJet and Ryanair, last-minute cancellations, baggage-handler strikes. Wings enable the imagination. However unpleasant the flight, or fearful the flier, it is still occasionally possible, gazing out across a silver wing to vistas unglimpsed 100 years ago, to feel a sudden wonder at nature, and at the technological achievements of man.
The wings are followed by the front cone, nosing blindly through the street like a blue whale lost in Noddyland, so close to the buildings that the first time the convoy came through no one was sure it would make it. Again, they have only 50cm to spare. A small boy bounces up and down next to his father. "Ah!" Six loaded lorries roll silently, computer-guided, through L?gnac, almost as if they are on tiptoe. Then they crest a hill and are gone.
Final assembly: Toulouse
The wings arrived at 1am last night, and are parked, the white plastic looking stained and travel-weary, outside another unimaginably large new hangar - this one composed of 32,000 tonnes of steel, the equivalent of four Eiffel towers. Inside it, each wing acquires falsework, moving parts, then at post 40, is finally joined to the body, using 2,300 rivets per wing. Then the plane, looking a little more like a plane, will be moved into a huge room next door, where three stubby A380s are currently parked. From a vantage point five floors up, they look sort of normal - until you notice the layered mini-cities below them, the tiny people. The tail, now attached, is 24.1m above the ground, the equivalent of about six storeys. The wings are the most graceful thing about them.
Three weeks here, and the plane will be rolled out on to the Tarmac for flight testing. On its maiden first flight, chief test pilot Jacques Rosay and his crew announced "she handles like a sweetheart": partly this is due to a deliberate echoing of how all Airbus planes are handled, by a revolutionary fly-by-wire system; partly to a radical overhaul of the entire cockpit, a process in which he and Peter Chandler, the steady-eyed second experimental test pilot, were intimately involved. "It's very satisfying to sit in the cockpit," says Chandler, an ex-RAF fighter pilot who spent years doing solo shows at Farnborough, and the first Gulf war testing anti-radiation missiles in the Mojave desert. "You look at a switch and you think, to someone else it's just a switch, but if only they knew how many meetings went into that. I shall be very glad when it goes into service and people think that it works well, because if it doesn't, it's my fault." They have been flying test after test since April last year - testing cold in Iqaluit, northern Canada, heat and altitude in La Paz, Bolivia, airport compatibility in Melbourne. Static tests include bending a wing up until it snaps, and simulating 40 years of wear and tear, just to see what happens.
But there is a lot that cannot really be tested yet, and one of those things is what it will actually be like, for the average punter, to fly. The full-size mock-ups at Toulouse give a pastel-coloured clue - but the airlines, and not Airbus, fit the cabins with seats and decide how much space each passenger gets, and though the range is roughly 450-550, all are currently keeping these figures jealously to themselves. What economy is like depends, says Carcaillet pointedly, "on the generosity of the airline". Flight International magazine may pronounce that "designers will be dealing with a small architectural project. It's so big, the A380 is no longer a room - it's now a hall," but Tom Barker, head of industrial design at the Royal College of Art, is less enamoured of the opportunities. "It's lipstick on a pig, basically." Where are all the things that would really change the experience of flight, make it romantic and exciting again, he asks - more windows, for example, why not make it glass-bottomed? More access to pilots, more information about the earth below?
No one really believes there will be much of what Richard Branson has been promising - gyms and Jacuzzis, cocktail bars, gambling tables: the reality, in economy at least, is some standing areas, an extra inch or so of width to the chair (which makes more of a difference than you'd think, but is still just an inch), a bit more leg room. Because the paramount aim is to decrease the cost of travel per passenger, and thus increase the airlines' profit margins, if you use up all the space with fripperies, that advantage - never great - is lost. It is often said that no one has made a profit from running an airline since the Wright brothers first took to the sky. Peter Morrell, a professor specialising in air transport economics and finance at the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield University, points out that this is not entirely true, as Ryanair and easyJet make money, as do some Asian carriers; in the US, however, airlines have made an overall cumulative loss over the past 120 years. Flying has always been about a kind of pig-headed denial of observed reality.
The logical progression from this is obvious: low-cost carriers, bulk carriers, succeed, and there is the prospect, on some busy trunk-routes such as the so-called kangaroo route between Europe and Australia, of price wars and all-economy stretch A380s taking up to 700 per plane. The A380 may, as Kingsley-Jones puts it, rival the best experiences of flying today, but the fact remains that it is simply enabling more of the same. "I don't think it will change the future of flight dramatically," says Fariba Alamdari, who leads the department of air transport at Cranfield. "It's pushing the boundaries further. If it was carrying 3,000 passengers - God forbid - now that would be revolutionary."
None of which denigrates the epic proportions of the A380 as a pure engineering and logistical achievement. Late this year, or early next, the first civilian passenger will set foot on a Singapore Airlines A380 bound to an as yet unannounced destination. "Be first to the future!" exhorts the Singapore Airlines website. "Be part of aviation history!" They're not wrong.