Fuel-efficient flying may be just over the horizon
KLM is helping to fund a new, more efficient commercial airliner. The Dutch national carrier is taking steps to reduce the fuel needs of commercial flight. Yes, fuel efficiency is a relative thing – this is no Prius – but the design will mark the first dramatic innovation in plane design for decades.
The Need for Development
Air travel (and cargo) is one of the greatest polluters in the world today. The rises in air traffic and plane size have combined to push commercial air travel onto the list of environmental danger-industries.
The massive amounts of fuel used to lift these giants into the air and to push them along at high speeds, all while serving hot meals and cold drinks in a comfortable, often luxurious cabin environment, has grown to unsustainable levels.
Futurists and industry specialists alike have been taking a long, hard look at public air travel and the very real possibility that it cannot be sustained indefinitely. The drive behind KLM’s investment in the Flying-V concept may well have profit margins in mind too, but their investment in this as-yet unproven project is justified by environmental concerns first.
The goal is to make air travel sustainable. This may be a significant step in that direction.
Justus Benad conceived of the Flying-V idea while a student at the Technical University of Berlin. It has since been developed by researchers at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands.
The key concept of the design is that the passenger cabin, cockpit, fuel tanks and cargo area are all incorporated into what is essentially a single, v-shaped wing.
The tube-and-wing design gives way to a shape that creates lift over almost the whole surface of the aircraft. More lift means less thrust needed to get and remain airborne. Less thrust needed means less fuel needed – and there you have greater efficiency.
So How Efficient Is It?
The decrease in fuel consumption, per passenger, is estimated to be about 20%. This may sound like a big number, or a small one, depending on your expectations, but to put it into perspective, lets’ consider the numbers.
There will be an estimated 39.4 million commercial flights in 2019. A Boeing 747 burns about 20,000 gallons of fuel on a 5-hour flight. That’s about 780 billion gallons of fuel a year. If all planes were to reduce their consumption by 20%, we’d use 156 billion fewer gallons of jet fuel per year.
Granted, not all planes will be Flying-Vs, and all of this is still theoretical, but the potential is attractive enough for KLM to take notice, and back up their environmental policy with hard cash.
Critics remind us that there is still no actual plane in testing or production, and that the world may be a very different place in 20-30 years – will this technology be obsolete before it can even make it into production?
These are valid points, but since the innovation is one of increased aerodynamics and lift performance, not one of engine or fuel type, it is feasible that it may provide support technology that enables other advances – such as lighter-weight, more powerful batteries to allow for electric flight.
When to Expect It
Researchers are planning to fly a scale model of the plane in September 2019 and to set up a mock of the interior for public viewing (at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam) a month after that, as part of KLM’s centenary.
If testing and development is successful, the plane would enter service sometime between 2040 and 2050.
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