A 1-hour flight south of Paris, the headquarters of Airbus is located in Toulouse, France where groups can tour Europe’s largest industrial building to watch the world’s largest passenger plane being built. Anyone who enjoyed gluing model planes together as a kid will look up in awe at the four, double-decker Airbus A380s towering overhead at any given time in various states of completion.
Bring your passport and leave your camera at the hotel to gain entrance into the visitors center for the Airbus A380 Tour at the sprawling Jean-Luc Lagardère Plant. From there, it’s a short bus ride to the mammoth factory where groups are broken up in teams of 20. Our guide walks us along the length of the facility indoors in front of the four planes, separated by a rope about 50 feet away from the front wheels. It’s not like you can walk up to these $350 million planes and kick the tires.
The payoff is seeing not just the planes, but all of the mobile cranes, scaffolding, folding jigs and working platforms that move around on tracks hanging from the ceiling as parts of the plane are put into position.
Putting an Airbus A380 together begins with the manufacturing of individual components in the four countries footing the bill for the A380: Spain, Germany, the UK and France. The wings for example are built in Bristol; the tail comes from Cadiz.
Once complete, these parts are shipped to Toulouse via ships, barges, heavy-duty lorries and one of the biggest, goofiest looking planes ever built—the aptly named A300-600ST Beluga aircraft—designed specifically to cart pieces of A380 across western Europe. First to arrive, the ginormous sections of fuselage, wings, cockpit and tail are delivered through the giant back doors of the first bay: Station 40. It takes about a week to weld and bolt everything together. After that, the assembled aircraft skeleton is rolled back out and transferred into one of the three other bays called Station 30.
The plane is completed there in about three weeks to the point where it can fly. We watched as men uncrated the four new-generation Rolls-Royce Trent 900-series turbofan engines.
From there, the plane goes through its testing phase in the skies over Toulouse, before it’s flown to Hamburg for painting and customization for the individual client.
The A380’s capacity ranges from 525 passengers in a typical 3-class configuration to 853 for all-economy seating. Carriers such as Emirates, the largest purchaser with 90 planes, configure their cabins with first and business class upstairs, coach on the bottom. To date, there are over 300 firm orders, with just over 70 planes in service.
One of the planes we saw under construction was a special delivery for a head of state. We asked who. They wouldn’t say.
After our ground floor tour, we transferred up to the seventh floor viewing station for a video detailing the entire process.
This tour is highly recommended for anyone interested in advanced systems and logistics…. Or anyone who ever gingerly placed a decal on an airplane model.