Mick Hamer

WHEN the giant Airbus A380 made its maiden flight on 27 April, the airlines' publicity focused on plans to install bars, beauty salons, gymnasiums and even double beds on board. But there was little mention of one less glamorous fact. The A38o's ability to carry twice the number of passengers as many of today's planes will almost double the chances that on any given flight someone will need urgent medical attention. Yet the air transport industry appears unprepared for this, New Scientist has discovered.

Medical emergencies are the most common reason for diverting aircraft (see Graphic). And as more elderly people take to the air, the frequency of medical emergencies and consequently the number of diversions is likely to increase. Though airlines are not required to report the number of medical incidents on board, a 2000 UK government report showed that the number can be as high as 1 in 1400 passengers flown And a recent US study of one airline showed that 8 per cent of on-board medical incidents resulted in the aircraft being diverted to the nearest airport.

In a medical emergency, it is up to the pilot to decide if the plane should divert, and to choose where to land from a list of suitable airports In making the decision, the pilot will also listen to any doctors or medical personnel that are on board. "I would take medical advice," says Eric Moody, a retired British Airways pilot. "You don't want a passenger to die. But I think I would prefer to continue to where [the aircraft] can be handled properly."

And that's where the crunch comes. Airports around the world are still gearing up for the A380, and handling the behemoth properly is no easy task. The A38o's 80-metre wingspan is 15 metres wider than the Boeing 747-400's, and some taxiways are being moved to give adequate clearance. It will also be heavier than the Boeing, so runways are being strengthened to take the increased weight.

But the most expensive part of the work is adapting the terminal buildings. The plane needs two

Wanted, a flying doctor loading jetties, one for the main deck and one for the upper deck. Only 20 airports will have terminal buildings that can cope with the A380 by 2006, although this will rise to 60 by 2010.

Given this shortage of airports equipped for the A380, the pilot may be forced to divert an A380 to one of the 200 airports around the world that can handle a Boeing 747. "In theory the A380 will be

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