Airbus executive vice president engineering Charles Champion has a very long sighted cause in an industry which is under immense pressure to keep its focus on the close range perils of unstable national economies and the struggle by airlines to survive.

Speaking the day after delivering the Kingsford Smith lecture at Australia’s Royal Aeronautical Society he is asked how it is possible to engage minds, and managements, that will be long dead by the time the ultra long range Future by Airbus program which he heads comes good on objectives it hopes to see introduced by 2050.

“We have to break out of just thinking about current programs, or what happens in the next 10 years,” he says. “We have to ask what constraints will affect the growth in demand for air travel, we have to look at where it can make substantial step changes in efficiency, we have to ask if there are entirely new ways of doing things, and we have to have the conversation with the airports, the government authorities, those concerned with the development of better air traffic arrangements, as well as the airlines.”

2050, different planes, and an energy neutral airport, Airbus graphic

This is to paraphrase a wide ranging discussion, and, it is definitely not a ra-ra yeah Airbus event. It is a respectful discussion about what Airbus wants to do in the context of agreed frameworks or goals between all the aircraft making industry stakeholders, including the engine makers and systems makers that sell their products, usually, to all the jet factories.

Champion’s career with Airbus began when it was Airbus Industrie, in 1979, when in his words, it was unglamorous and lesser regarded part of the French aerospace industry that was dominated in public and political perceptions by the success of the Anglo-French Concorde partnership.

He reminds the table that nothing can happen unless the world agrees on how and what should happen, and that the transition has to be one in which the benefits of new ways of navigating clouds of airliners in free flight between airports with electro-magnetically assisted take-offs and landings isn’t totally negated by their need to coexist with aircraft pursuing the older ways of doing things in the distant past, which is the past which is our present.

This vision, previously reported here, means that airframes could be built with less powerful engines in terms of airframe mass today, and even, in theory, without traditional undercarriages.

But Champion acknowledges the problem of alternate airports, and says he put the case to his team of ‘futurists’ that aircraft designed for catapult style takeoffs and captures (but more gently than on aircraft carriers) should retain an undercarriage for such emergencies and to cover the considerable period of time in which our conventional airliners and those of 2050 or beyond share the market and the skies.

He says the team numbers around 30 mainly young engineers (who will be alive when this particular future arrives) who have minimum budgets but maximum incentive to help make the much more efficient future a reality.

“Our engineers are continuously encouraged to think widely and come up with ‘disruptive’ ideas which will assist our industry in meeting the 2050 targets we have signed up for it low emissions targets and other environmental goals.

“These will only be met,” he says” by a combination of smarter aircraft design and optimising the built environment in which the aircraft operate.”

He mentions the benefits a system of electric tugs can bring much sooner than 2050 in moving aircraft around airports into position to takeoff or to the terminals after landings in what is today a very time and fuel consuming process in which one or more engines may be kept running, and the actual speed of the taxi has to be managed to keep the wheel assemblies from overheating.

Using a Paris CDG to Frankfurt stage as a general guide, he says a conservative estimate of net benefit in fuel savings, and the intangibles of noise and emissions reductions, of a 13% flight stage saving is a reasonable outcome.

However talk to Qantas or Virgin Australia about saving 13% on fuel burned inefficiently in taxying around Sydney and Melbourne airports and they would be ecstatic. It would boost their short terms goals for profitability by tens of millions of dollars.

The scheduled block times for the 707 kilometres flight (give or take a bit) today are 90 minutes, compared to 80 minutes in the much slower Vickers Viscounts and DC-6Bs of the 50s. Sure, those flight times are padded to look good on the on-time-performance league tables but they still contain a huge amount of waste dictated by congestion, and taxi distances, all with at least one engine being used to nudge an 800 kmh jet around an airport at 5 kmh including periods at complete rest.

On the ground at the airport of the future: Airbus graphic

Champion argues that much of what seems risky, or daring today, such as catapult style take-offs, doesn’t take into account the constant improvements in engine reliability or the benefits of re-thinking how future travellers will use airliners or airports.

Count most of us at the table this afternoon as converts. Champion isn’t just talking about air travel. He is talking about the imperatives of cities where smart buildings, like green airport terminals, generate all their power from stored renewables, and the equations will work because what might for example only be less than 10% efficiency in thermal retention, or solar energy capture, or the surge of tides on the margins of a future airport, may be double or treble as effective in half a life time from now.

These are worthy, vital, and some might argue, desperately essential causes, that will take a lot of time to make real, starting from today.

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