The journey of transporting parts of the Airbus A380

The Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, includes 4 million parts shipped from 30 countries by land, water and air.

It’s 1 a.m. in the peaceful town of Lévignac near Toulouse in southwestern France. People stand in line along the main street of the town waiting for a parade. However, there were no trumpets or decorations for the event.

Instead, a convoy of six trucks towed a large trailer carrying various parts of the world’s largest commercial aircraft, the Airbus A380 . The crowd clapped and cheered as the plane’s wings, fuselage and horizontal tailgate slowly moved over town, an event that happens every few weeks, according to CNN.

The final assembly line (FAL) for the double-decker A380 model that can carry over 500 passengers is located at the Jean-Luc Lagardere factory in Toulouse-Blagnac airport. This is also the headquarters and flight test ground of Airbus Group, where many other products are launched such as the A320 model with a single-aisle cabin and wide-body A330 and A350 aircraft.

Since the delivery of the first aircraft to Singapore Airlines in 2007, the line in Toulouse has assembled over 200 A380s. Of which, more than 100 aircraft belong to the fleet of Emirates airline in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

As with other Airbus projects, most parts for the A380 are manufactured at the company’s facilities across Europe, and components come from suppliers around the world. The giant aircraft’s wings are built in Broughton, Wales, fuselage from Hamburg, Germany and Saint-Nazaire, France, horizontal tailplane manufactured in Cadiz, Spain; vertical tail was also born in Hamburg.

Transporting the aircraft’s bulky parts to Toulouse was a closely coordinated process overseen by Arnaud Cazeneuve, Airbus’ director of large cargo operations. “For me, an A380 consists of six main parts: three parts of the fuselage, two wings and a tail,” Cazeneuve said.

From rivets and bolts, to seats and engines, an A380 is made up of about 4 million individual parts manufactured by 1,500 companies from 30 countries around the world, according to statistics. Therefore, the modes of transportation of these parts are also very diverse, including water, air and road.

Airbus has a fleet of three ships specifically designed to transport key A380 components to a floating pontoon in Pauillac, right on France’s Atlantic coast. These ships carry the six finished A380 components manufactured by Airbus’ facilities in Wales, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

The journey of transporting parts of the Airbus A380
Barges transporting aircraft parts on the river. (Photo: CNN).

Sharing with CNN, Mr. Cazeneuve said factories do not use cranes. Each manufacturing plant places A380 parts on a shipping rack and a custom multi-purpose vehicle follows the mold to transport them. “I don’t have to directly operate the process, it is simply transferring parts from one transport vehicle to another,” Mr. Cazeneuve said.

While the six main parts of the A380 are shipped by sea, the vertical tail section of the plane is shipped by air from Hamburg to Toulouse. The unit’s first flight was not outside the plane, but inside the Airbus A300-600ST superlifter aka Beluga.

The journey of transporting parts of the Airbus A380
Beluga super transporter. (Photo: CNN).

Beluga mechanical transport was born as a wide-body passenger aircraft. The cockpit of each aircraft has been lowered so that the front end forms a large hangar. Cargo is loaded onto the plane from the front end. The Beluga transport fleet of five serves as a bridge between Airbus’ manufacturers in Europe, whose primary task is to deliver parts for all Airbus aircraft to the FAL. Although the Beluga can carry oversized cargo, it can only accommodate the vertical fins of the A380 because the other components are too large.

At Pauillac, six major parts of the A380 were unloaded onto the barge for the onward voyage to Toulouse. The two barges will make four round-trip journeys in eight days, covering a 95-kilometer route from the Garonne River to Langon. From there, departments have to travel another 240 kilometers to reach the FAL in Toulouse. As each major A380 component arrives at Langon, it is loaded onto a special trailer towed by a truck. After all 6 sections arrive at the meeting point, the trip to Toulouse will begin.

Due to traveling only at night, the convoy took two nights to travel the 240km to Toulouse, following a side route called Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit (IGG), which was upgraded to accommodate the size of the trailer. “In the past, there was a link between Langon and Toulouse. When Airbus built the A380 project, we went to the authorities to discuss the upgrade,” Mr. Cazeneuve said.

The journey of transporting parts of the Airbus A380
Convoy of trucks carrying 6 main parts of Airbus A380. (Photo: CNN).

Airbus paid 57% of the road upgrade cost of 5 million, and the government paid the remaining 43%, recognizing the economic benefits that the A380 project would bring to the region. The road was widened, more than 6,500 trees were planted, 3-4 times more than the number of trees cut down to serve the project. Small detours were also built to make it easier for the convoy to pass through some of the 21 towns and villages on the route.

Along with a host of other changes, roundabouts were rebuilt to allow trucks to travel directly through the center of the roundabout. More than 35km of bike and horse paths have also been opened with new, wider paths.

“When you’re driving on the road, you feel as if the runway is reserved for the A380. You know it’s different from the normal road,” Mr. Cazeneuve said. Schedules showing the convoy’s travel plans are available on IGG’s own website, and locals are also reminded three days before each convoy begins their journey via electronic roadside displays.

When the trucks moved through the night, the route was blocked at the intersections to ensure the safety of the convoy as well as the town of Lévignac. Instead of using a detour, the convoy went straight through the center of town. This is a section of the IGG route where each vehicle is escorted by a walker along the trailer. Mr. Cazeneuve said that the plane part on the car was only about 50cm from the buildings along the street and people could watch the convoy right in front of the window.

Once through the town of Lévignac, the convoy took another hour to reach its final stop, the FAL chain in Toulouse. Although he can be sleepless, Mr. Cazeneuve often leaves the office in the middle of the night shortly after the motorcade arrives in Toulouse because he wants to monitor and make sure everything goes according to plan.