Re-engineering the skies

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Depending on whom you believe, the future of civilian aviation is going towards either large “super jumbo” planes that can carry a massive number of passengers, or smaller, more efficient jets and “microjets” that can serve regional and smaller airports.

More people are flying than ever before, and the result is growing congestion in the skies and at airports.

India and China are experiencing unprecedented growth in air traffic, and the trend is likely to con-tinue. Air traffic is set to grow 8.8 percent per year in China through 2024 (Beijing is hosting the 2008 Olympics, and Shanghai is hosting the 2010 World Expo) and 25 percent a year in India through 2010, making Asia a fertile ground for aviation companies.

However, sky-high oil prices are eroding airline profits, even sending some airlines into bankruptcy. Many North American airlines are especially vulnerable. In 2005, the global airline industry lost an estimated 6 billion US dollars because of the rise in oil prices, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), despite a world passenger traffic growth of 8.7 percent.

And then there is the environmental angle. Airliners rate as one of the most polluting forms of transport, with the world’s 16,000 commercial jets producing more than 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, according to a report in the National Geographic Magazine.

At the same time, low-cost carriers are popping up literally everywhere – Asia, Europe and North and South America – with their no-frills, passenger-pays-for-everything service – and are challenging the status quo of the “legacy” carriers.

These and other trendsare forcing airplane manufacturers such as America’s Boeing, Europe’s Airbus, Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer to rethink the kinds of planes they put in their customers’ skies.

However, the situation is anything but a consensus. Manufacturers are betting on different futures for commercial aviation.

Airbus and Boeing are the two largest civilian airplane manufacturers in the world, selling a combined 2,057 planes in 2005, a bumper performance that is likely to fall by half in 2006, reports the International Herald Tribune. More than 40 percent of these orders came from Asian airlines.

In early 2005 Airbus announced its plans to build the world’s largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, capable of carrying more than 800 people in three separate classes. This behemoth airplane aims to dethrone Boeing’s 747 as the world’s biggest and best-selling airplane. The 747 has seating for a maximum of 420 passengers.

The A380 has two decks running the length of the plane, with dual-lane staircases at the front and rear and four aisles. It boasts an 80-metre wingspan. Yet, for all its size, the A380 is 31 tonnes lighter than the 747. It is also quieter and more fuel-efficient and can fly a longer range than the 747 – 16,200 kilometres for the A380 versus 13,325 kilometres for the 747.

Airbus claims that greater size equals greater environmental benefits. The new plane, the company says, will not only help ease the increasingly congested airways by packing in more passengers, but its fuel burn per passenger makes it more environmentally friendly than most passenger cars. The company also cites the A380’s operating costs as around 15 to 20 percent lower per seat than the 747. A BBC study puts the plane’s fuel efficiency at 31.8 kilometres per litre per passenger.

The A380 is due to start commercial service in late 2006 with Singapore Airlines, which has placed orders for 10 aircraft. So far, Airbus has sold 139 of the USD 280 million A380 super jumbo planes to Lufthansa, Air France, Thai Airways, Korean Air, Federal Express and China Southern Airlines.

Airbus’ largest customer for the A380, with 43 planes on order, is Emirates, a rapidly expanding state-owned carrier based out of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. With the new planes, Dubai hopes to become a major transcontinental hub.

But while Airbus focuses on larger planes, Boeing believes that large-capacity aircraft flying to big overcrowded airport hubs is a thing of the past. Instead, the Chicago-based company is betting on its new B787, which will take to the skies in 2008. The mid-sized plane has the range of a big jet.

The Dreamliner, as the B787 is called, caters to travellers’ needs for speed and direct connections, says Boeing. The B787 will seat up to 300 passengers and will have a range of 16,000 kilometres. The B787 is swift and fuel-efficient (Boeing’s Web site says the plane will use 20 percent less fuel than a similarly sized plane) and can access regional airports without any fuss. By contrast, many airports will have to be rebuilt to accommodate the Airbus A380.

As of the Asian Aerospace 2006 show, held in February 2006 in Singapore, Boeing had won 354 orders for its new B787, about twice as many as Airbus.

While Airbus and Boeing are archrivals, their two newest planes can also be seen as complementary. The super jumbo A380 is suitable for high-density routes such as Paris to New York, whereas the B787 is more suitable for long-haul routes with fewer passengers.

While bigger, faster and more environmentally friendly are some of the keywords driving today’s airline industry, there is also a trend towards smaller and more flexible aircraft.

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, the market for “microjets” is starting to take off.
A microjet is a small passenger jet capable of carrying eight to 10 people and serving small airports that typically are closer to people’s homes. They are often called “air taxis” and can fly about two-thirds as fast as an airliner. And they cost about half of what a normal business jet costs, or about USD 1.5 million.

The FAA said at a recent conference that 100 of these jets will begin flying in 2006. By 2010, there will be more than 1,500 microjets flying US skies.

Some of the companies vying for a share of the US’ burgeoning air taxi market include Cessna, Eclipse Aviation, Adam Aircraft and Cirrus Design. Even Embraer, the Brazilian manufacturer of 110-seat city hoppers, popular for short-haul flights, announced the launch of its own Phenom 100 microjet in November 2005.

“We’re on the cusp of a new business model,” Nan Shellabarger of the FAA told the New York Times in March 2006.

“America awaits a real air taxi system,” wrote columnist Rich Karlgaard, in Forbes magazine. “Bring it on!”

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