"Hey honey, could you bring a clean shirt to the airport": Airbus graphic

Airbus is proposing (in the distant future) that airliners could be launched and landed aircraft carrier catapult style from a whole new generation of green and clean airports.

Keeping in mind that a landing on an aircraft carrier is one in which you stop but your eyeballs and the last meal you ate might not, this is definitely something to think about if you feel that contemporary air travel has already crammed itself into an intolerably uncomfortable experience.

It is however, a vision that Airbus, as part of its Future by Airbus proposals, has been careful to describe in soothing terms, and with some very interesting additional details.

Think about Aircraft launched through assisted take-offs using renewably powered, propelled acceleration, allowing steeper climb from airports to minimise noise and reach efficient cruise altitudes quicker.

Space becomes a premium and mega-cities become a reality, this approach could also minimise land use, as shorter runways could be utilised.

Welcome aboard flight 2050.

Take your seat and prepare to be propelled to optimum cruising altitude in a continuous ‘eco-climb’.

Listen to the changing sound of the engines during flight and it’s obvious: an aircraft draws on its reserves of power more during take-off than at any other time.

The power needed to take off is determined based on a number of factors.  These include runway length, wind speed, temperature, and the weight of the aircraft itself.

But this take-off power is only required for a very brief part of the total flight.  Once cruising in the sky overhead, an aircraft doesn’t need as much to maintain altitude.

So why not source the energy required at take-off from an innovation installed on the ground?  Can the burden (and weight) be removed from the aircraft itself?

An assisted take-off – using some form of propelled acceleration – would mean aircraft could be lighter, with smaller engines consuming less fuel.

All of which means an optimised aircraft could climb to its most efficient cruising altitude more quickly.  A continuous ‘eco-climb’ would further cut noise and CO2 emissions, especially if renewable fuels were used, making the process even more eco-efficient.

This would be in sharp contrast to today.  Aircraft currently climb in a series of incremental – and inefficient – stages.  These ‘step climb intervals’ require more fuel.

With less time and distance required for take-off, the runways could be shortened – by up to 1/3rd.  This would minimise land use, enabling airport capacity to increase or new micro-airports to emerge.

These could be located close to city centres – or the mega-cities that will become a reality – with space becoming even more of a premium.

How will it work?

Aircraft could be manoeuvred onto a track system and accelerated using either electro-magnetic motors built into the track or an inductive circuit within the aircraft itself.

Acceptable acceleration and deceleration limits of passengers would need to be determined.  But the experience would be more akin to a comfortable children’s funfair ride rather than a high-octane white knuckle theme park.

The ultimate, albeit it very extreme, concept is to have a system that not only launches but also captures the aircraft, removing the need for landing gear.  This would require all airports to have the same system, to accommodate all routes along with alternative/diversion airports, and is probably a little beyond 2050.

This takes us into a  future where there would be fleets of aircraft limited by design to fly between assisted launch and capture airports, and would never have the installed power of today’s airliners in terms of being able to climb away from an airport after an engine failure too close to the end of the runway to stop, and have enough thrust available on the remaining engine to clear obstacles and safety maneuver back to the airport, not only in hot weather, but at high altitude locations.

The proposal also raises formidable challenges in designing such airliners to cope with any critical moment power failures by the rail gun, or whatever the launch mechanism used.

But it is about a future in which somewhere between half and two thirds of those who regularly fly today will be dead, as distinct from being alive but wishing they were dead, or at least somewhere else, on a bad hair day at airports or in airline operations.

A free flight constellation of like minded Concept Airbuses: Graphic by Airbus

The Future by Airbus concepts, which are billed for stardom at this year’s ILA Berlin Air Show  (11-16 September) are also again graced by the intriguing form of the Airbus Concept Airliner design, which has appeared as the shape of things to come in sizes ranging from an A320 to an A380 replacement in Airbus discussion papers for the past three years.

At this year’s show flocks of Concept Airbuses are seen in flying formations like those of migrating geese, following ‘free flight’ routes independent of air traffic control as we know it today, yet keeping themselves automatically safely apart within such clusters where like minded jets freely and independently determine where the most favourable winds and conditions apply to their various tasks.

Depending on your point of view, this could be considered an exciting or ‘gripping’ concept, not unlike the near subliminal capability of a crowd of people to swirl through a busy place, like a railway or airport terminal, without running into each other. Except occasionally.

Another view of the Airbus Shape of things to come: Airbus graphic
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