tip off
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Airbus sharklet a symbol of what has been, not what is to come

Airbus sharklet, the symbol of the future, is really the marker for the end of the age of airliners as we know them today

Photos can sometimes mean much more than what was intended when they were framed, and surely this is so of the striking image Airbus is circulating of one of the wing tip sharklets on the first A320 to enter service using them as the penultimate upgrade to the popular airliner before the type gets its new engine options starting late 2015.

The benefits of the sharklets are widely known, and the efficiencies of the new engine options that will be available from CFM and Pratt & Whitney much anticipated for reduced consumption of fuel that will also burn with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

But the sharklet isn’t a symbol of the future so much as one of the past, and of the suite of engine and airframe improvements that will bring to an end the era of the single aisle twin engined jet airliner tubes-with-wings as we have known them for more than 56 years, if we start with the TU-104, that most of us didn’t know about at that time anyhow.

Before the early 737s and later A320s there were Caravelles, BAC-111s, and the rare Dassault Mercures, with F28s on the side as the DC-9s appeared, proliferated, lengthened and culminated in the MD-95 or 717, and the CRJs and E-jets found important niches.

There is no doubt from the massive orders for the A320 family NEO series that it brings advantages that the airlines are very keen to exploit. Airbus, and Boeing with its competing line of 737 MAX aircraft, have both made it clear that after them comes something entirely different.

There will be jets that exploit the maturation of materials technology in composites and metals to build airliners that will be unlike those we fly in today; a new generation of quasi wide bodies that will fit into the same terminal gates as today’s A321s and 737-900s, but because they manage to be both fatter but sleeker, also seat more passengers, say around 250 rather than 180 in a high density format.

The rivals are of course cagey lest they give away too much away. But we have all seen the various patents, and listened to their leading executives saying essentially the same thing, which is that growth in unit size in the markets served by today’s single aisle jets as well as a breakthroughs in material and engine technologies, are going to produce different all new airliners to take over from these imminent ultimate developments of current A320s and 737s.

The NEOs and MAXs will bridge the new requirements for reduced carbon emissions through their efficiency gains, and they will undoubtedly prove as profitable and effective as their types do today for well run airlines.

But they are the last of their lines. By the time we see in 2023 rather than 2013 Airbus and Boeing may well be very different companies than they are today.

They will it seems face new competition emerging in China and perhaps elsewhere, and we will be anticipating embarking and disembarking from A320 and 737 successors that use more doors and make the flights of the sky warriors less frustrating at airports.

And we will have seen what are the dreams of today become the realities of tomorrow, with cheaper, cleaner and even safer travels for more of us than ever before.

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  • 1
    Geoff
    Posted December 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Ben – not sure I agree. If other forms of transport are also reviewed they have certainly changed over time. Ships are the oldest but even there we still see a hull that supports the ship on the water and contains propulsion and cargo. The change is that the propulsion has become more efficient and with that the size has increased as has the cargo capacity. Motor cars are similar; there is a box that carries the cargo, four wheels and a propulsion unit. Trains pretty much the same. All have become more efficient but the shapes are pretty much the same.

    I would have thought the same would apply to aircraft. Regardless of size, a function of improved construction methods and propulsion units, there will still need to be wings and a fuselage to contain the cargo.

    I agree that there are future concepts out there but so there are with ships, cars and trains. If the useful life of an aircraft is ten to twenty years we are never going to see the roll-over of technology experienced in the smartphone industry. Personally I like that, we have settled on a safe design of aircraft that can take us anywhere in the world from a 4000 metre runway. One day it might do it with a catapult launch into the stratosphere with hypersonic ram jet engines but I still think it will need a fuselage and wings!

    Hope you are having a Great Xmas – I shall be looking forward to your blogs in 2013 – keep up the good work.

  • 2
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted December 25, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Geoff,

    Thanks for your best wishes and to all, hope it was a top Christmas and here’s to a great year in 2013.

    Talking of catapults, amazing things have been done with toy trucks and railway sets near the Christmas tree.

  • 3
    Aidan Stanger
    Posted December 26, 2012 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Those sharklets are more a symbol of the present than the past or future. And are we really any nearer the aircraft of the future than we thought we were when MH adopted one as its logo?

    My predictions for 2023:
    The Russians will be competing against Airbus and Boeing in the widebody market.
    Airbus and smaller manufactureres will squeeze Boeing out of the narrowbody market.
    Boeing will be first to develop the new generation of aircraft, and will be claiming that they’ll be ready within three years. Only Qantas will believe them.
    Electrically geared turbofan engines will be the norm.
    A new Richmond terminal, directly served by train, will have taken some of the heat out of Sydney’s new airport debate. But there will still be fierce arguments as to whether Badgerys will be needed within twenty years.
    Phase 1 of the VFT will have been designed, put out to tender and cancelled, Then the process would be repeating itself, with funding probably depending on an election outcome. (Note: I can’t predict a timeframe for it, but if the balance of power ever depends on the Bobcats as well as the Greens and Indys, expect it to be built straight away).
    Adelaide curfew will be relaxed a bit. Sydney curfew won’t, but the cap will be reformed to avoid delays causing further delays.

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