My Life as a Traveler


We keep coming back to France because of Airbus, the main European player in the airplane construction business, a close competitor to Boeing. Anytime you get on a plane holding more than, say, 60 people, it’s most likely made in the USA by Boeing (737, 747, etc.) or in Europe by Airbus (A320, A330).

My husband George is a contractor for the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and is on the team to decide how far planes can safely fly behind Airbus’ newest behemoth, the A380, as it is landing and taking off. This plane has two stories and can hold up to 846 people, depending on the configuration of the seats, which is determined by the various airlines who buy it. It’s huge!

George is one of the few experts in the world on the subject of wake vortices, those powerful little tornadoes of air that form off the wing once the plane gets moving. (You can see the water version looking at the little swirls that form after an oar, or your hand, moves through the water.) From the bigger planes, a wake vortex from a larger plane can generate enough power, especially close to the ground and a certain amount of distance behind a plane, to flip a smaller plane and smash it to the ground. So upon taking off and landing, air traffic controllers maintain certain prescribed distances between the planes to avoid wake problems. It’s a safety issue.

As you might imagine, this new Airbus A380 generates a huge wake, therefore requiring a longer distance (separation) from any following aircraft. Unfortunately, more spacing means more time between landings, meaning fewer planes and passengers using the airport, meaning less money for all involved. Airbus has promised its customers that this spacing of the A380 will be the same as the (smaller) Boeing 747. They have done many tests and say that the data confirms this assertion.

However, when George and some of the other guys on the team analyzed the data from these tests, they found that this was not the case. Arguments ensue, new data is produced to be analyzed, and the spacing argument continues. Airbus has 300 of these A380s on order, and many of these orders are conditional on the shorter spacing. If the spacing will be larger than the 747, the airlines may cancel their orders. Airbus has put an enormous amount of resources toward building this airplane and thousands of jobs all over Europe rely on its continued production.

So, keeping this all in mind, I thought it would be fun to take the kids (and me!) to see how they make the A380 on the Airbus factory tour. It was pretty cool, we saw the huge hangar (largest building in Europe) where they make 6 at a time, with the different planes in different stages of development, we saw the finished ones, not painted and waiting for their flight tests, and saw a mockup of the inside with seats and everything. I asked the tour guide about the separation for take-off and landing, and he said, “Oh, they have just finished tests that will make the Airbus the same as the 747.”  I thought, “hmm… what you don’t know!! – My husband is going to prove you wrong! Busted!”

Back to the room, Anna has a little stomach upset, so we stay in the room and try to stay cool. It’s nice to rest for a while and contemplate the possible demise of the two-story airplane.

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