Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Future of Air Travel

MIT researchers are developing a new airplane technology that potentially will reduce fuel consumption by 70 percent. From the story:
The MIT-lead tream developed the twin-aisle "double-bubble" D8 configuration during NASA-funded N+3 studies completed in 2010. In NASA paralance, N+3 means an aircraft that could enter service around 2035. In those studies, the team concluded that the D8 could reduce fuel burn 70% relative to today's 737-800.
Of that saving, 49% comes from the configuration, with its wide lifting-body fuselage, almost-unswept wing and reduced cruise Mach number, and rear-mounted engines ingesting the fuselage boundary layer. The rest of the 70% reduction comes from 2035-timeframe airframe and engine technologies.
 Here is what it looks like:

A new plane like this will be a real improvement for long distance air travel. For short haul trips, there is a new entrant into the market called Surf Air. From a NY Times article:

Travelers who want to shave time off a four-hour car drive don’t have many options. Amtrak’s Acela Express has just a single route. And given airport procedures, flying isn’t such a shortcut. Surf Air, an airline starting this summer, has designs on that short-haul sweet spot.Its concept: eight-seater, first-class planes fly daily loops through uncongested regional airports (inaugural route: Van Nuys-Palo Alto-Monterey/Pebble Beach-Santa Barbara). For a $3,000 membership fee during the initial three-month trial — and for up to $1,500 each month thereafter — members can fly as many times as they wish along that route, subject to availability. They can drive to the airport, hand their car keys to a valet, wheel their bags up to the pilot, and board.Members will be vetted to ensure that they are not a flight risk, and to make sure that the airline’s routes match demand. Members will be able to hold up to six bookings at a time.
Turboprops, like what Surf Air will use, are a potential way to improve the environmental costs of air travel relative to jets.  Megan Smirti has written extensively about this. It is possible to make air travel more environmentally sound through technology and policy. Fixing the unpleasantness of airport security is pure politics.
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