November 2010


German, French, Spanish, and British collaboration, coming together in Hamburg: Airbus

Thursday I went to Hamburg—a one-night journey—in order to visit one of Hamburg’s most advanced factories, the Airbus facility.

I can’t really explain how it happened to come to be this week, but essentially I remember that Airbus was in Hamburg after the Whiney Expatriate Blogger Meet-Up, and then I sort of started making plans, but nothing ever came of it. Then, during my housewarming party I mentioned my desire to tour Airbus to my Hamburg friends, Ian in Hamburg and his wife, K.

K’s eyes lit up and she said she wanted to go and that she was free on Thursdays.

So I set it aside for a week and then, and the story here is really convoluted, I joined something (to be revealed later) which led, directly, to a series of events that ultimately resulted in me discovering that Airbus was offering an English language tour of the factory, this past Thursday, at 2:30 in the afternoon.

K and I arrived just after 2, paid our 14€ (each) and waited for the tour to begin

Now I’ve been on a lot of factory tours and I can confidently say that this tour was top notch in every single respect, but one.

You see, the last time I toured a factory, I got a free sample of the product at the end. I’ve received free samples at most factories I’ve visited—beer, chocolate, Play-Doh (I was a kid), and the like. It’s a tradition—it’s something that companies just do—something that builds brand loyalty, because, and trust me on this, when I need something moldable, colorful, and salty, I only buy Play-Doh.

Airbus seems to think they are above this honorable and longstanding tradition.

It’s not like I actually expected much: I don’t want an A380 or an A330, I would have been happy with any member of the A320 family (except, I suppose, the A318).

But there you are, Airbus is stingy and I will not fly their products. The next time I step on an airplane, if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going.

Just kidding—I fly plenty of Airbus products, and whist it is true my next plane trip will not involve its products, the following trip does—so there.

The tour, itself, was, as I said before, top notch in every single respect. Our tour guide was Holger, a retired Airbus employee who knew a lot about airplanes, but—as he admitted—it is impossible for any one employee to know everything there is to know about Airbus. It’s a big company, spread out around the world, and its products are complex.

We got lucky, right off the bat, the second we walked onto the Airbus grounds: an Airbus Beluga (I believe #1) was taxing around the grounds in full view. What an amazing looking aircraft—flying around carrying pieces of other airplanes.

After admiring the Beluga we took a bus to a pavilion where we got to look out over the grounds—talked about land reclamation (the factory area is built on a swamp), and saw a couple A380s awaiting delivery: one for Qantas and one for, I believe, Emirates. I’m not a huge fan of the A380—it looks rather fat and ugly—in my humble opinion. After overlooking the grounds and watching a film, the real fun began.

We entered a building where the rear sections of the A320 family are assembled—and got to look at the skin of an A320 that was hanging on hooks from the ceiling, waiting to be married to other parts and to for the fuselage. Next we saw the center section of the aircraft, the wing box—waiting for the skin to be attached to it, and our tour guide was able to impart a ton of knowledge. It’s hard to capture here, but he explained that when the wing is attached, somebody has to crawl around on the inside helping attach the 700 rivets that hold each wing in place—and the space inside the wing looks incredibly tight.

Airbus assembles the rear half of the A320 family in Hamburg, the front half is assembled by the factory in France, which then ships the front half to Hamburg where it is attached to the rear half. It’s not really clear why it is logical to assemble the front half of the plane in France and then ship it to Germany, other than the fact that Airbus is owned by France, Germany, Spain, and Britain, and each involved country gets to assemble some part of the airplane.

Once the rear part is assembled it moves on, as did we, to another building where it has stuff installed, including radio antennas, GPS, and more, before it is tested and checked—it’s only the back half of the airplane, and it looks incredibly complicated, but pretty.

From there, it is moved across the road to another building where it meets the front half of the airplane, has wings attached, landing gear installed, as well as the tail and rest of the gear—but not the interior or the painting, in general. The tail is installed with the colors—and whilst there I saw JetStar, Alitalia, LAN, Air China, and two tails that I did not recognize.

It’s pretty amazing how big the A320 family seems—it seats between 107 (the A318) and 185 (the A321), roughly speaking. Yet it’s not—we were lucky enough to encounter the rear portion of an A330/340 inside one of the buildings, right after we looked at the back portion of the A320 family. There you can appreciate how much wider the wide body is—and how small it makes the A320 family feel.

It was a great tour, lasting over the planned 2.5 hours, and was a bargain at 14€. The Airbus factory is enormous, with some 10,000 employees, and feels very much like a city, complete with bus lines and students. Each year Airbus hires apprentices, high school aged teenagers, and we witnessed many of them on the Airbus grounds.

Sorry about the lack of photographs: photography on the tour was not allowed, so I couldn’t take pictures of everything I saw even though much of it would have made for fascinating photography.

However, I do have one photo to share. We were given a present along the tour, a rivet. The rivet is special in that it is heat treated—I forget exactly how it is treated, but I think that first it is really, really hot, and then it is stored in a freezer at something like -25C/-13F, before being taken out and used. However once taken out of the freezer, they must be used within 8 hours, after which they must be discarded –they cannot be refrozen (just like packages of frozen food).

Rivet for an Airbus


Something is, of course, better than nothing.

If you want to go: Airbus Factory Tours, Hamburg.

8 comments to German, French, Spanish, and British collaboration, coming together in Hamburg: Airbus

  • Wow… That’s fascinating! I never thought that they’d do tours and will have to go.

    My office is on the flight path to the site, on the final approach, so we quite often get the Belugas and A380s flying in and out at very low altitudes over our site, which is quite fun.

    I’ll make sure to set up a visit… It does sound like a great tour!

  • The Qantas A380 must have raised an eyebrow or two.

  • I can confirm that K liked the tour very much as well, though she didn’t mention the rivet.
    I like to watch the beluga flying into the factory. It seems like it shouldn’t be up there at all.

  • Michele J

    Jealous – I’d love to go on this tour. I suspect optimizing gubmint subsidies plays a significant role in the consortium.

  • Whoa, that is really interesting about the rivet. I mean that it’s considered useless if it’s been out of the freezer too long!

  • Interesting. Although you’d think they would have coughed up a little plastic plane model or something similar as a tour freebie, rather than a rivet. :-/

  • Wow, I find that interesting about the rivet. Does metal stress have something to do with its usability?

  • Emily – My apologies! I should have thought to invite you. I hope your tour guide is as good as Holger. I can imagine that the tour guide makes a huge difference. I suspect older ones are better than younger ones.

    headbang8 – The Rolls Royce Engines were not spinning–so no danger there.

    ian in hamburg – Everything about flying amazes me. When I was a kid my Dad would take me out to Denver’s Stapleton International Airport and we would watch planes land and take off. You were able to get really excellent views of the runways and as a hub for *three* airlines, Denver was always hopping. I still remember the old liveries with fondness. The United livery from the 80s was simple and nice. The Continental livery with the contrail C. And the original Frontier’s highly stylized F. such memories. — Oh wait, I’ve drifted away from your original comment. So sorry!

    Michele J – The division of labor on the planes is divided among the four countries with each country doing the amount of work that, roughly (and closely), corresponds to the percent that the country owns.

    CN Heidelberg – He gave an explanation why — I forget the exact details since we were getting so much information in just 2.5 hours, but I imagine it has to do with the stresses in the metal (as Cathy observes in a later comment). He told us that when they are attaching the wing with its 700 rivets, the rivets have to be attached in a specific order, otherwise the stresses won’t be right. Then again, I’m not an engineer and so my knowledge of this subject is really limited.

    heather in europe – Well, had I been willing to cough up more, I could have bought any number of things from the Airbus Store at the beginning/end of the tour.

    Cathy – I’m sure its about stresses. But I’m not an engineer so I can’t imagine the exact reasons here. If you’re ever near Hamburg, you should do the tour–but note that all people on the tour must be at least 14 years old.