If there is one design goal higher than any other for aircraft makers to address in 2011 it is surely that of easily boarding and leaving tightly packed single aisle Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s.
By now most of us have become grudgingly accustomed to miserably tight torture tube seating in jets with as many seats crammed into their cabins as the certification rules, not to mention our kneecaps, will allow.
But in the year just ended I’ve timed five or six minute delays in even being able to stand up in the aisle after arrival, following inexpensive but ‘intimate’ 42-70 minutes block times between actual take-offs and touch-downs.
The single aisle Boeings and Airbuses we fly in have internal dimensions that were fine for prompt seating and disembarking when expensive air travel saw cabins configured typically with around 130-140 seats and load factors were often so low that less than half of them were occupied.
This century the same jets can have up to 189 seats (Boeing 737-800) or 180 seats (Airbus A320s) if we look at the two models that do most of the single aisle jet flying in this country, and with 215 or higher seating starting to appear in the form of Jetstar’s A321s. These days these jets often fly with every seat occupied.
The plus for travellers has been affordability. But the negatives of severe crowding and slow ‘turnarounds’ of the jets between flights also impact the airlines. They lose revenue opportunities because the slow boarding and disembarkation processes reduce available flying hours, and we lose circulation in our extremities. And in my opinion, we also lose a margin of safety in an emergency evacuation, in that the harder it is to get to an aisle and to an emergency exit in the event of a fire or ditching, the more of us may die in an otherwise survivable accident.
Boeing and Airbus acknowledge all of the above. They have been dropping hints and exchanging signals for ages now about how ‘all new’ replacement designs for their super profitable single aisle jet families will solve all these problems.
Both claim that new designs will allow jets carrying more passengers than current members of the A320 and 737 lines to fit into the same gate spaces at airports. That they will be easier to get on and off, thus making us happy, and the airlines richer. And so forth.
But the process of turning these claims into reality has stalled…not forever…but certainly for the time being if we look at actual commitments of engineering resources versus words. Airbus has put off its all new design until about 2024 (in order to fully utilise new materials technology) and Boeing has huffed and puffed about jumping the gun, and going ‘all new’ real soon.
The words ‘new’ and ‘real soon’ appear to have surreal connotations at Boeing, judging by the 787 program! As does its slaughter of American talent in favor of farming design and manufacturing processes to incompetent, sub standard but wonderfully cheap outfits abroad.
Airbus has moved in on the ‘slight’ problem of the existing 737 family, of low ground clearance, by announcing an interim revision of its A320s with two new high tech engine options (from the Franco American LEAPX design, or a geared turbo fan from Pratt & Whitney) from 2016.
These engines are just wide enough not to fit under 737 wings without Boeing engaging in a very costly redesign of the main gear to lift the ground clearance. They promise to give Airbus very substantial fuel efficiency gains, and thus also payload and range gains over the Boeing line.
However both Airbus and Boeing share one very big challenge at the moment. A shortage of design and engineering talent. Both have cut brutally into their human resources, and in the case of Boeing, both brutally and stupidly, and can’t handle all new designs until they crawl over barbed wire and broken glass to bring back the talents that contemporary managements fired. The Airbus new engine option or NEO program requires far fewer design resources than an all new program, yet if mutterings in the European media are correct, even this program puts stress on its nascent A350 medium sized airliner program and ambitions to upgrade the A380 to fly ultra long distances or add two or three hundred seats to the offering.
How might an all-new single aisle design overcome cabin congestion issues? In the 1980s the ‘real Boeing’ had a project called the 7J7, which used unducted fan engines and had a twin aisle two by two by two seating arrangement. The engine concept proved premature, and the generosity of the cabin amenity was starting to look implausible even then, as the cost pressures of airline deregulation became more apparent.
Both manufacturers have dropped hints about ‘quasi wide body’ designs, in which the major part of the passenger deck might be twin aisle, or even consist of facing seats arranged against each cabin wall, paratrooper style, with two lines of facing seating in the middle. There are problems with seating that faces sideways rather than ahead, in that the seat restrains would require small air bags to be fitted in the seat belts, as already found in some of the layouts used in side facing or ultra wide premium cabin seats. But they aren’t insoluble.
There have also been references to a third set of main doors being fitted to the cabins, amidship, rather like a metro carriage, so that passengers could board and leave by an additional set of full sized doors, roughly where the overwing exits are found today.
These third door options involve either a high wing design to create that door access, or are predicated on them only being used at terminal gates where a gantry allows passengers to use a ramp to reach them. I’ve been listening to every hint I can in discussion of these new designs, and another feature of them is the expectation that when they fly through busy airports gantry or clam shell type aerobridges would also facilitate simultaneous passenger movements from both sides of the cabin.
Applied to an 180 seat jet today, which at most uses two main doors at the terminal, this could make six main doors available, consigning the boarding and leaving discomfort of domestic inter city flights today to the past. And allowing the airline using such designs to typically fly ten trips per plane a day between cities like Melbourne and Sydney rather than eight.
That’s the sort of productivity and coincidental comfort gain that is available, if only Airbus and Boeing can hire enough design experience to set them in motion this year with a view to entry into service before the second decade is over.