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Airbus' Jigsaw Plane

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The logistical challenge of building the Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger jet, is every bit as awesome as the plane. Start with a piece of equipment requiring millions of parts and complex technology. Add to that the aircraft's outsized dimensions -- about 50% more floor space than a Boeing (BA) 747 and a wingspan more than 10 meters longer.

Then, to make things really complicated, manufacture the wings in England, the tail in Germany, the fuselage in France and Spain -- and move these gargantuan pieces to yet another location to put them together.

Although the A380 is assembled at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, none of the components is made there. Instead, they're sent to Toulouse from factories in four countries.

TOO BIG. Airbus uses a similar arrangement for the other aircraft it builds, shipping the components by land or loading them aboard transport planes. But the A380's parts are too big for conventional transport means.

So Airbus devised a complex scheme that involves shipping pieces on a custom-built oceangoing ferry, a fleet of river barges, and oversized flatbed trucks. To accommodate the trucks, 240 kilometers of highway connecting Toulouse to the nearest port had to be widened and straightened.

Wouldn't it have made more sense to build the whole thing in one place -- or at least assemble it near the water? Airbus said it considered putting the final assembly plant in a port city such as Hamburg, Germany, where it already has a factory.

AIR SHOWS. But it concluded that setting up a new factory and recruiting and training workers would have cost even more than shipping the parts to landlocked Toulouse. The decision clearly was political, too. The governments of France, Germany, Britain, and Spain, which provided loans to finance one-third of the A380's $13 billion development costs, wouldn't have kicked in that money without getting a share of the construction work.

Shipments of components to Toulouse started in early 2004, and since then four planes have rolled out of the factory. All are being used for testing and for highly publicized appearances at major air shows.

A fifth test model is nearly complete, and work has already begun on aircraft scheduled for delivery to the first customer, Singapore Airlines. Singapore was to have received its first plane this spring, but delivery was delayed eight months, to the end of 2006. Airbus hasn't specified the reasons for the delay, but experts familiar with the project have said it was related to installation of the plane's interior fittings.

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