Biggest jet ever muscles through tiny French villages

Italo Scaravetti knows his place.

As the mayor of Dému (pop. 325), he is not about to get in the way of the French state as it bulldozes toward its vision of a united Europe at the cutting edge of technological breakthrough.

In pursuit of this dream, engineers have carved their way through this tiny village in picturesque southwest France as part of a $195 million project to create a route wide enough for juggernaut tractor-trailers carrying parts for the largest airplane ever built.

Its wings are to be made in England, the fuselage parts in Germany, the tail in Spain. Politically, the European Airbus consortium's A380 is a symbol of Europe's increasingly successful challenge to Boeing for global aeronautical supremacy; practically, it poses enormous challenges itself.

Last week, a test convoy crawled through Dému, two behemoth trailers almost scraping the houses on either side as they squeezed down the village's main street. But Mayor Scaravetti understands the moral of this tale: When "grandeur" is at stake, and when the French authorities want something like this done, they get it done, no matter what. "It is not for a mayor like me to be against a project of national and international importance," he says humbly.

The trucks carried mock-ups of the wings and fuselage of the A380, the consortium's twin-deck, 555-seat super-jumbo, to be assembled in Toulouse, 70 miles east of here. The parts are too big to be flown to Toulouse, Airbus's usual practice, so they will be subjected to a "multi- modal transportation system" - shipped to Bordeaux, on France's Atlantic coast, transshipped by specially built barges that will carry them down the Garonne River to a new port at Langon, and then trucked 150 miles to Airbus headquarters.

But the roads that wind through the rolling hills of Gascony were not built for trailers 177 feet long, 27 feet wide, and 43 feet high. So they have had to be widened, straightened, and flattened in an 18 month rush to lay new tarmac, raze roundabouts, bury electricity lines, and cut trees to create a navigable route for outsize vehicles.

Pushing an emergency law through parliament, the government declared the road project to be "infrastructure of national interest," which would brook none of the delays that the normal planning process would entail.

The route was chosen, compulsory purchase orders were issued to free up needed land, and villagers along the route were told what was about to happen. "We were consulted," recalls Scaravetti. "They told us what they wanted to do and asked our opinion. If we agreed, everything was OK, and if we didn't, they went ahead with it anyway."

Standard planning procedures could have lasted years, but Airbus had little time to spare in its race to produce a new generation of passenger jets. It has promised delivery of its first A380, costing between $250 million and $280 million, in 2006 - two years ahead of Boeing's planned tests of its fuel-efficient rival to the A380, the mid-sized 7E7.

Airbus is anxious to consolidate its emerging advantage over Boeing: after having won more aircraft orders than the US company for several years, the European consortium is on track to deliver more planes than the Seattle-based firm for the first time this year.

"The problem is that things done fast are seldom done well," complains Jean-Pierre Dufour, head of the Green Party in Bordeaux, about the construction of the new route.

Certainly planners have not let the hermit beetle, a rare insect protected by the Berne Convention on threatened species, hold up work the way it has on other French road projects. They did, however, leave the stumps of trees they cut down which might have housed the beetles, to give them some place to live.

Engineers also built narrow tunnels under the road in areas populated by the European mink, to save the creatures on their nocturnal prowls from having to dodge between the wheels of the six mammoth trailers, accompanied by police outriders, that will travel the route over three nights, once a week, when production of the A380 is in full swing in 2008.

All along the route, plans have been laid to beautify the road - planting four trees for every one cut down, burying electricity and telephone lines, modernizing streetlighting, and decorating intersections with ornamental plants.

The builders have also thrown in a few sweeteners to smooth their way through built-up areas. They offered the municipal council of Vic-Fézensac a new town square and parking lot, for example, which Deputy Mayor Jean Castagnet described as "a compensation, something that a town with our budget could never have afforded on its own."

It's hard to say exactly who will pay for White Horse Square. Airbus is paying 57 percent of the $195 million cost of the road project, while the French government is kicking in 43 percent, or $84 million.

That smells to some like a government subsidy for Airbus, a contentious issue in the aeronautics sector, where Europeans and Americans have traded allegations of hidden subsidies for years.

"What is shocking is that we are using public money for a private interest," argues Mr. Dufour, the Green politician.

Airbus spokesman Jacques Rocca disagrees. "The French government is always responsible for paying to make roads suitable for outsize convoys," he says. "But ours is extra-outsize, so we are paying for the extra work and the special arrangements involved."

None of that matters much to Henriette Dufeuillant, a widow whose home on the outskirts of Vic-Fézensac was demolished to make way for a new bend in the road. After lengthy wrangling, the authorities built her a new bungalow, 200 yards up the hill. Mrs. Dufeuillant misses the fruit trees in her old garden, she says, cuddling her pet terrier, "But I am getting used to it. I have to, don't I?"

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