We Went To France To Find Out How Airbus Builds The World's Biggest Passenger Jet

Airbus A380 assembly toulouseInside the Airbus A380 final assembly line.

The Airbus A380 is one of the most incredible planes flying today, even judged by size alone.

It usually seats around 500 passengers, but can hold as many as 853 — making it the largest passenger aircraft on the planet.

After watching the behemoth perform at this year’s Paris Air Show, we took a trip south to Toulouse, the French city where Airbus assembles many of its planes, to get an inside look at just what it takes to put together the A380.

After a trip by boat, barge, and truck, the various parts that make up the jumbo jet are assembled in an enormous building, in a process that takes just 10 to 11 days — fast enough that Airbus can produce 2.5 per month.

(The process of building and testing the entire plane, which sells for nearly $400 million, takes between 10 months and a year.)

It’s remarkable.

Note: We’ve censored the tail of the jets in these photos, per Airbus’s request to protect their customers’ privacy.

Before work starts in Toulouse, the pieces need to get there. The various parts of Airbus planes are built at plants around Europe. Usually, they're flown to Toulouse in the endearingly ugly 'Beluga' cargo plane.

But the A380 is huge — so huge, its various parts don't fit in the Beluga.

So Airbus came up with a special delivery process, the Oversize Transport Itinerary.

That involves a lot of time on big boats.

On barges, the parts travel via Bordeaux, on France's Atlantic coast, to the town of Langon, on the Garonne River.

To go the final 125 miles to Toulouse, the sections of the aircraft are loaded onto trucks and driven very slowly.

Some of the driving is done at night, so the convoy can take over the entire road without inconveniencing too many people. This happens every two weeks, and is something of an event for locals.

Once the various parts of the plane make it to Toulouse, they are sent to the A380 assembly site.

Like the A380 itself, the site is also huge. It covers 123.6 acres.

The final assembly line building is 1607 feet long, 820 feet wide, and 151 feet high.

More than 1,300 employees work in two nine-hour shifts to assemble the huge planes.

To work on the A380 — which is 79 feet tall — they stand on these elevated platforms.

Some of the platforms are even mobile. This one is suspended from the ceiling and can be moved when necessary.

There are lots of safety precautions around the assembly like, like bubble wrap on wing tips.

And a very, very low speed limit. 5 kilometers per hour equals 3.1 mph.

Unlike other Airbus planes, the A380 does not move down an assembly line.

Remember, the plane's enormous wings give it a span of 261 feet.

Because the A380 is so big, moving it is an inefficient pain. At one station, the three sections of the fuselage are guided into place by radio-guided vehicles to make sure they're exactly lined up.

They overlap by 10 to 12 centimeters.

Then Airbus workers join them, using about 19,000 rivets. The process for attaching the wings (pictured here) is similar.

At the same stage, the wings are attached, as are the horizontal and vertical stabilizers (the fins at the plane's rear).

Along with the landing gear (including 22 tires), the pylons to mount the engines are installed.

Once the huge jet is put together, it is towed to the next station, where the electric and hydraulic systems are tested. There's more than 300 miles of wiring in each plane.

Near the end of the process, the engines are finally installed. Because they are so expensive, Airbus prefers not to join them to a plane until they're sure the aircraft is nearly ready for delivery.

Then there's a battery of final tests, done outside the assembly line. And when the A380 is finally delivered, it's something to celebrate.

Now take a look at another Airbus aircraft.

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