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Dec 23, 2012

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

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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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