Type or CopyFour million parts, 30 countries: How an Airbus A380 comes together

 Howard Slutsken

It's the middle of the night in the sleepy French town of Lévignac, in the countryside just outside of Toulouse.

There are people lined up along the town's main road, waiting for a parade to begin. But there are no marching bands or decorated floats at this 1 a.m. event.

Instead, a convoy of six trucks appears, each pulling an enormous trailer carrying a massive component of the world's largest passenger airliner, the Airbus A380.

The crowds applaud as the plane's wings, fuselage sections and horizontal tailplane slowly inch their way through the provincial town -- a procession that's repeated every few weeks.

Giant airplane kit

The Final Assembly Line (FAL) for the double-deck, 500+ passenger A380 is in the Jean-Luc Lagardere plant, a purpose-built facility at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southern France. It's also the site of the Airbus corporate HQ and flight test department, and where single-aisle A320s and wide-body A330 and A350s are built.

Since its first delivery to Singapore Airlines in 2007, more than 200 A380s have rolled off the line in Toulouse. Most of the planes, more than 100 aircraft, are flown by the Dubai-based Emirates airline.

As with other Airbus projects, the manufacturing of components for the A380 are spread among the company's facilities throughout Europe, and parts come from suppliers all over the world.

The megajet's wings are built in Broughton, Wales; fuselage sections come from Hamburg, Germany and Saint-Nazaire, France; the horizontal tailplane is made in Cadiz, Spain; and the vertical tail fin is also manufactured in Hamburg. Getting these huge pieces of airplane to the FAL is a tightly orchestrated logistical process, overseen by Arnaud Cazeneuve, oversize surface transportation manager for Airbus.

From rivets and bolts, to seats and engines, an A380 is made up of about four million individual parts produced by 1,500 companies from 30 countries around the world. "One A380, to me, is six components -- three fuselage sections, two wings, and the horizontal tailplane," says Cazeneuve.

Airbus has a fleet of three specially designed vessels to transport the A380's major components to a floating pontoon dock in Pauillac, just inland on France's Atlantic coast.

The roll-on, roll-off -- or ro-ro -- ships carry the six completed A380 sections from Airbus facilities in Wales, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

"There is no crane activity needed," Cazeneuve tells CNN Travel. "Each production plant puts the sections on the transport jig, and a special multi-purpose vehicle goes under the jig to move it.

"I don't have to touch the section, just transfer the component from one transport means to another."

Six by sea, one by air

While the six major components of an A380 are enjoying a sea cruise, the plane's vertical tail fin flies from Hamburg to Toulouse.

The fin's first flight isn't on the outside of a plane, but inside one of Airbus' A300-600ST Super Transporters -- better known as the Beluga.

These highly modified cargo carriers started life as wide-body passenger jets. Each plane's cockpit has been dropped to accommodate a cavernous cargo bay that's been grafted atop the fuselage.

The fleet of five Belugas link Airbus facilities in Europe, carrying components to FALs for all of Airbus' planes. Even though the Beluga is designed to carry oversized cargo, it can only accommodate the vertical fin of the A380 -- all of the other major sections of the megajet are just too big.

Meanwhile, in Pauillac, the A380's six major components are unloaded, and then moved to one of two barges for the next stage of the trip to Toulouse.

The barges make four return trips over eight days, traveling 95 kilometers up the Garonne River to Langon. But from there, it's still another 240 kilometers to the FAL in Toulouse.

As each major component arrives in Langon, it's transferred to a specially designed trailer. Once all six sections arrive, the road trip to Toulouse can begin. and Paste Your text here, Only 30,000 characters are allowed

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