Testing times for Airbus’ A380

AIRBUS HAS denied that evacuation tests on its A380 superjumbo will lack realism, despite asking safety regulators to dumb down the trials. The move has sparked fears that the European plane-maker is cutting corners with its security measures.

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By  Rhys Jones Published  April 10, 2005

AIRBUS HAS denied that evacuation tests on its A380 superjumbo will lack realism, despite asking safety regulators to dumb down the trials. The move has sparked fears that the European plane-maker is cutting corners with its security measures. The region's airlines are monitoring the situation and are aware that Airbus is trying to weaken the rules governing the trial evacuation of its latest aircraft. Emirates has 45 A380s on order, while Qatar Airways has four superjumbos on the way, but accusations that the trials do no simulate real chaos continue to undermine the test's credibility. The A380, the world’s biggest passenger plane, is due to take its maiden flight next month and enter service in mid-2006. Nevertheless, Airbus must first demonstrate that it can be completely evacuated within 90 seconds, even though it takes over an hour to pack in its maximum load of 853 passengers. Half the exits must be blocked during the trial to simulate a fire and the height of the A380 means that passengers on the upper deck will be at least 26 feet above the ground. Airbus has applied to safety regulators in Europe and the US to be allowed to deploy the inflatable escape slides for the upper deck before the trial begins. It says that this is to reduce the risk of serious injury during the trial, which is due to take place in Hamburg in the autumn. But pre-deploying the slides would also save Airbus up to 10 seconds and eliminate the risk of technical problems, which often occur in real evacuations. As a result, Qatar Airways has vowed to comply with the necessary regulations while Emirates Airline hopes that the first trial is a success. “Emirates believes that the authorities would not give their approvals until they are satisfied with the success of the trials,” said Mike Simon, senior vice president, corporate communications, Emirates Airlines. “We are confident that the complete certification for the evacuation of the Airbus A380 will have been obtained by the time our first aircraft is delivered in October 2006,” he added. Airbus, however, denies the trial will be invalid if the rules are altered, despite being allowed to provide extra lighting for the tests and to pre-deploy slides on the upper deck. “The US rules [FAR 25 803 Appendix J and Amendment 117] allow some lighting on the ground outside the aircraft and the pre-deployment of the slides on the upper deck, the aim being to minimise the risk of injury to participants during the trial,” David Velupillai, regional press manager, communications, Airbus, told Arabian Business. “This does not translate into allowing any extra time for passengers to exit the aircraft because slide deployment normally occurs in parallel with door-opening — both taking several seconds. The time to evacuate the aircraft is paced by the main deck rather than the upper one,” he added. The trial will involve 853 people chosen from sports clubs in the Hamburg area. While 35% must be aged over 50, none will be disabled or obese, despite World Health Authority figures showing that over 50% of people in the Middle East are overweight. This has led to accusations that the trials are not realistic. “The absence of people who have walking difficulties, or who are pregnant or obese will also undermine the trial’s realism,” said Tim Snyder, an expert in risk analysis and a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s occupant safety group. Airbus has admitted that pre-deploying the slides would give them a slight advantage, but claims the tests will retain their realism even though allowances have been made. “The authorities want to ensure a realistic test, but they also want it to be done as safely as possible with the least risk of injury to participants,” conceded Airbus’ Velupillai. Emirates and Qatar Airways have announced plans to install around 550 seats in their A380s, including first-class and business-class sections. But some carriers may want to create high-capacity versions, as some have done with the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The 747 can carry as many as 524 passengers in a two-class configuration but usually carries around 416. The A380s with fewer seats won’t have to undergo an evacuation test so long as Airbus can pass the test with the maximum 853 passengers.

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