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Air travel changes at less than supersonic speed

By Sarah Dilorenzo

Associated Press

Published: Friday, June 21 2013 11:56 a.m. MDT

A French Air Force Rafale fighter performs its demonstration flight during the 50th Paris Air Show at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris, Friday, June 21, 2013.

Francois Mori, Associated Press

LE BOURGET, France — When the Concorde started flying in the 1970s, hopes were high that the traveling masses would soon streak through the air faster than the speed of sound or soar in planes that hurtled like missiles above the earth's atmosphere. Instead, jetliners still look the same as they did five decades ago and travel times have barely budged.

To consumers who have watched the world's technological imagination shift to Silicon Valley, the airline industry seems plodding. Computers and cellphones are obsolete almost as soon as they're unwrapped. The aviation industry looks stuck in time by comparison.

"Twenty years ago, 10 years ago even, a lot of technology and innovation came from the aerospace industry," said Larbi Ouchelouche, who is the project manager at Speel Praha, a Czech company that makes black boxes and other flight monitoring systems. "But today, the commercial is going so fast."

Restricted by huge costs, rising fuel prices and safety concerns, the aviation industry is unable to make the same leaps and bounds. It has instead turned its eye to less obvious advances, ones that companies say have allowed more people to fly than ever before.

But even some industry insiders revealed a touch of disappointment at the Paris Air Show this week.

"Look at all the aircraft ... they're exactly the same (as they used to be), they're just using different material," said Gerrard McCluskey, the vice president of engineering at AERO Vodochody, a Czech aerospace manufacturer.

One of the most talked about innovations at the show in Le Bourget this week was the use of composite materials — including carbon fibers and plastics; Airbus' newest jet, the A350, relies heavily on composites. But to the naked eye, it looks just like all the other Airbuses on display.

Many plane manufacturers let the military lead the way because the armed forces have the money to play with new technologies, test them extensively and then figure out how to build them efficiently.

"We let the military test it, prove it," McCluskey said. "I think what we have to understand is that aircraft are vehicles, they have to be safe and have to follow certifications."

But he predicted that within the next 10 years, planes won't contain a fuselage — where the cabin and cockpit are now. They'll just be one flying wing. Like a fighter jet. Or the gone, but-not-forgotten Concorde, which cut the flight time from London to New York to 3 hours and 20 minutes from nearly eight hours.

So what happened to the Concorde? The same thing that happened to the industry at large: the economy.

The Concorde was heavily subsidized by the French and British governments and as the industry declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became clear it was no longer viable.

While the experience of air travel has changed little, its global popularity has grown almost exponentially in the past two decades. In its 20-year outlook, Boeing Co. predicted the commercial aircraft fleet would double by 2034, with most of the new passengers in Asia and Latin America, where standards of living are rising quickly. But increased demand and the rising price of fuel have forced manufacturers to focus all their innovation know-how on fuel economy.

In the last 10 years, "the price of a barrel of oil has gone up, say from 25 bucks to over 100," said Jim Stoker, president of GE Aviation Czech. "If you go look at your airline ticket, well, it's higher than it was 10 years ago, it's still not four (times) higher."

That leads to the composites and lightweight metals that were the stars of the Paris Air Show. Both shave weight off planes, making them more efficient to fly. Composites also endure damage better, extending an aircraft's life.

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