Superjumbo tour: inside Airbus

Diana Plater takes on the ultimate planespotter's dream - touring Airbus's Toulouse plane factory.

For aeroplane buffs there's a tour that has to be compulsory.

It's to the Airbus site in Toulouse in the south of France, where the final assembly of most Airbus aircraft takes place.

(The A318, A319 and A321 are assembled in Germany.)

Airbus is the world's largest producer of civil jetliners, having overtaken former market leader Boeing.

It's a major employer in the town, with nearly 11,500 people working for it, with around 4,500 of these based at its central entity close to Toulouse-Blagnac International Airport.

The tour will allow you to see the new final assembly line built especially for the largest aeroplane in the world, the A380.

In October 2007 Singapore Airlines became the first airline to fly the huge plane.

The assembly line is also one of the largest construction jobs of its kind in the world, named after the late Jean-Luc Lagardere, who was co-chairman of Airbus' main shareholder, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).

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This area has to be as high as the Arc de Triomphe to fit the massive aircraft in; its parts are brought to Toulouse by barge.

As one Airbus employee said, "You get blase, you forget how impressive it is for people who see it for the first time".

We're keeping behind the yellow lines as we wander through huge hangars with just as huge planes being worked on. Many have slightly disconcerting red noses on them - and we're told this is a protective cover.

It seems as if almost nobody is here it is so quiet but inside the planes we're told teams of workmen are beavering away (as well as robots).

Workers are at it for around six days a week in different shifts. And the surroundings have to be kept at an even temperature, so there is no chance of buckling.

Blue bicycles are used for getting around the site.

Our guide tells us it can take two to three years to build a plane from scratch.

Final assembly of aircraft includes joining the forward, centre and aft fuselage sections, mating the wings to the fuselage, which is followed by the installation of the horizontal tail plane, fin, engine pylons, landing gear and engines.

Integration of the systems in the cockpit, plus system tests, also are carried out, including avionics, electrical, hydraulic, flight control, air conditioning, fuel tank pressurisation and landing gear.

Cabin furnishing for the widebody A330/A340 is carried out in Toulouse prior to final delivery. At the Saint-Eloi area of Toulouse, engine pylons are manufactured, while at another site, Blagnac, electrical assemblies are built, along with the repair, modification and preparation of spares for in-service aircraft.

The planes are flight-tested and ground-tested here with flight test pilots really part pilots/part engineers.

We're told safety tests of the A380 ensure that everybody in the aircraft must be able to be evacuated in less than 90 seconds.

The facilities also include areas for research, design and development. The next big leap in aviation by Airbus is the development of the A350, which won't be ready for at least two years.

There were so many requests for public tours of the site that Airbus asked a private operator, Taxiway, to manage them and an associated souvenir shop. Airbus has no role in the day-to-day operation of the tours.

The Jean Luc Lagardere tour begins in the boarding room with a presentation of the A380 program.

Visitors can see the assembly process from a viewing platform. From there they can discover the general tests stations, the outside testing areas and the general view of the entire site.

Another tour for school and student groups (limited to 30 visitors) also includes a bus trip around the airport, allowing you to see air traffic on the runways and the new Airbus Delivery Centre.

Then, after a tour of the Clement Ader site (including the unloading facilities for the A300-600 ST Beluga) participants can also access a viewing platform overlooking the final assembly line of the long-haul A330, A340, A340-500/600 aircraft.

The tours are booked out months in advance so they need to be booked well ahead of time. The company says it needs written confirmation by fax, mail or by post at least 45 days before the day of the tour. Check when tours in English are held.

Visitors have to show an identity card or passport before the tour and cameras and camcorders are not allowed on the site.

IF YOU GO:

Details: reservationtaxiway.fr or visit:www.taxiway.fr.

For more information on Airbus visit: www.airbus.com/en/.

Singapore Airlines flies from all Australian state capitals with daily connections to Paris via Singapore - A380 services will commence from June 1.

Specials start from $1,348 plus taxes/surcharges dependant on departure city. Call: 13-10-11 or visit www.singaporeair.com.au.

Air France flies from Paris to Toulouse.

The writer was a guest of Singapore Airlines and zuji.com.au.

AAP

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