Air travel: Evolution in the sky

How innovative design, new materials and biofuels will keep air travel viable.

In May 2006, a Seattle Times reporter got his hands on a set of internal documents from Boeing. Produced by a small team of engineers tasked with blue-skying about future aerospace designs, the documents featured concept designs for an array of odd-looking planes. One had two vertical tails, each topped with an open-bladed jet engine, a design that its engineers hoped would require less fuel. Another, designed to be as quiet as possible, had its main wings swept forward and a second, mini set of wings near the cockpit. Others had folding wings, or triangular delta wings. All were exciting departures from the standard fuselage-and-wings template that has plied the skies since the dawn of modern commercial air travel, but, excitement or not, don’t count on boarding one any time soon.

“We all want to see flying saucers and stuff,” says Boeing spokesperson Terrence Scott, and the standard airplane design we know may seem like yesterday’s news but, Scott says, it’s extremely well optimized for what it does. So although the air travel industry faces two huge challenges — the rising price of oil, and the environmental impact of the roughly 1.5 billion barrels of jet fuel that the airline industry burns through each year — the solutions are likely to be all but invisible. “It’s more likely that we’re going to see improvements in how it’s produced, what materials are used, and how those material properties are exploited,” Scott says.

That’s not to say that those improvements won’t have to be dramatic. Volatile oil prices have been a headache for the industry in recent years, as they’ve moved from US$147 a barrel in June 2008 to just US$40 six months later, to their current price just above US$80. But with warnings growing louder that petroleum demand may soon outstrip supply, some economists see the US$200 barrel on the near horizon. As jet fuel costs rise in accordance with oil prices — and already fuel has overtaken labour as airlines’ biggest expense — air travel could risk becoming unaffordable for the average person.

In the meantime, air travel’s environmental footprint is growing deeper as more people take to the skies. “Every 15 years, the number of passenger miles flown doubles,” says Simon Pickup, director of business operations for Airbus Americas. “We’re seeing a 4.7% growth incrementally per year. And yes, we’ve had the odd blip, but basically the trend is relentless. And this has a profound effect on both the number of airplanes that are going to be needed in the coming decades, and the size of them. By 2028, there will be more than 32,000 mainline airplanes in service. The fleet of passenger airplanes is going to well over double.” The David Suzuki Foundation estimates that aviation “accounts for 4%–9% of the total climate-change impact of human activity,” though the industry’s numbers are nearer to 2%-3%; but whichever numbers you use, for both economic and environmental reasons, the overriding goal in the medium-term future is to make air travel more efficient.

As Scott says, those efficiencies are principally being found in three areas, the most advanced of which is the introduction of composite materials into airplane construction. The industry’s been using composites in a significant way since 1988, when Airbus delivered the first A320 jetliner with a primary structure featuring 17% composites. These engineered materials make for lighter planes for reduced fuel burn, and offer decreased maintenance costs. Pickup boasts that the company has significantly increased the amount of composite used each time it has launched an airliner program. Their long-range, mid-sized A350, which is expected to enter service in 2013, will be more than 50% composite, with wings and a fuselage made primarily of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. Composites feature heavily in the Bombardier CSeries, also expected in 2013, and in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which will be 80% composite when it enters service as early as year’s end.

Robert Buckman, an airline futurist and director of airline distribution strategy for travel industry tech company Amadeus, notes another trend that the Dreamliner is leading. As a long-range but midsized plane, he says, “it’s been designed in a way that’s going to enable it to utilize midsized airports” for which other long-range airliners are too big, forcing them to rely on larger airports. Long-range midsized jets allow for more efficient non-stop flights, and less reliance on the hub-and-spoke system, which passengers loathe. Buckman also sees big advances already being implemented in load balancing, using new mathematical algorithms to figure out optimal distributions of passenger and cargo weight within the plane for a better flight trim and therefore a more efficient flight. Advances in on-board aviation electronics, meanwhile, will improve planes’ ability to self-monitor, and will allow them to predict to the second when they’ll land. That means more efficient air traffic control, fewer delays, and the potential for existing airports to handle as many as a third more takeoffs and landings.

Potentially the most direct way of address both economic and environmental concerns, though, would be with an alternative-fuel breakthrough. Biofuels and other alternative sources have been in the headlines enough to have dulled any futuristic sheen (thanks to Richard Branson’s billions, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to conduct a commercial test using biofuels in 2008), but their widespread viability remains somewhere on the horizon. Ross Walker, Airbus’s engineer program manager for alternative fuels, predicts that they’ll make up 15% of aviation fuel by 2020, and 30% by 2030. Boeing has done extensive testing of both hydrogen fuel cell and liquid hydrogen engines, though neither is yet even remotely close to viable as an energy source. And while Boeing’s managing director of environmental strategy, Billy Glover, anticipates an eventual portfolio of various plant types — particularly algaes — that will be used to make high-quality fuels, ramping up production will be a daunting short-term challenge for a biofuelled future. “It’s a startup activity,” Glover says. “It’s going to have some capital costs, it’s going to have some operating costs that aren’t what you want them to be, but it’s the kind of thing that will improve. We’ve had 100 years to optimize petroleum refining, and we’re at the very beginning of optimizing biofuel development and refining.”

While there’s industry-wide scepticism about ripping up the template, that doesn’t mean those next 100 years don’t hold the possibility of something radical, and engineers are at least exploring the possibility. Boeing’s Phantom Works division, the company’s secretive principal research and development arm, has for years worked on blended-wing concept planes. Their collaboration with NASA on the X-48 program has military types salivating, but may never result in a blended-wing commercial passenger plane. (Among other concerns, potential flyers balk at the lack of windows, and the amphitheatre-style seating that positions them far from emergency exits.)

Finland’s largest airline, Finnair, sponsored a high-profile “exploration of the future of flying” in 2008 called Departure 2093 that tapped the brains of aeronautic engineers, environmentalists and business professors for a look 85 years into the future. The results proved fascinating and fantastically far-out. (Among the designs they came up with: a flying saucer.) And the European Union, perhaps still smarting from the mothballing of the Anglo-French Concorde in 2003, spent €7 million ($9.8 million) on the 36-month Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies (LAPCAT) study, examining the possibilities of producing engines for aircraft that could far exceed the speed of sound. They were pleased enough with the results that they ponied up another €10 million ($14 million) for LAPCAT II, a four-year study that launched in October 2008 with a mandate to refine two of the LAPCAT concepts based on engines that would burn liquid hydrogen, and to produce detailed development road maps for producing them. One of the concepts recalls the sleek, delta-winged design of the Concorde, intended to carry 300 passengers over long range at Mach 5. It could, its designers theorize, travel from Brussels to Sydney, Australia, in 4½ hours. The other would hit Mach 8 and resemble an upside-down flying dustpan.

So a radical overhaul of the commercial airliner may one day happen, but it’s so many decades into the future that it can’t be predicted with any seriousness by manufacturers. It would likely be predicated on an unforeseeable game-changing technological breakthrough, a wholly new engine design, or a new power source. Meanwhile, we can cross our fingers, and dream about flying saucers.