HIA staff with helmet

The future of flight

Image credit: HIA

The spread of coronavirus is posing serious challenges for the aviation industry, but could the pandemic help reshape it?

As you arrive at the terminal, your bags have already been checked in, and the flight details safely stored in your app. As you breeze through the surprisingly empty building, cameras track your every movement, monitoring your position, behaviour, temperature, and even mood.

Passport control is a thing of the past as your biometric information is used to identify you. While you relax with a coffee, your phone vibrates with details of your seat and boarding time. A flick of the wrist opens the departure gate, and you stroll on board. Welcome to the future of flight.

For so long the trajectory of the airline industry has been upwards: more flights and more passengers, bigger engines, higher-capacity planes, larger airports and longer runways. Innovation and expansion in commercial aerospace has opened up new possibilities for us all, giving many more of us the chance to visit parts of the world previous generations could only have dreamed of seeing.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were over 100,000 passenger flights a day globally – double the number a decade ago. In April 2020, this had fallen to just 29,439. Across the world, airports lie empty, planes line up on runways with their engines covered, and flight crew are furloughed as the industry adapts to the new normal.

Have you ever fallen ill after a flight and wondered if it could be to blame? It’s highly likely – but only if the person next to you was sick. A 2018 study into the transmission of respiratory diseases, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the risk of catching flu from other passengers on a flight is small – unless you sat within a metre of them.

Using computer modelling based on the spread of existing flu viruses, the team found that passengers within a two-seat radius of an infected person had an 80 per cent chance of becoming ill themselves. The risk to the rest of the passengers was low.  

We should be wary of drawing too much from one study, but with all communicable diseases, maintaining personal space is the best protection. Social distancing on planes has been proposed as a potential solution, but reaction from the industry hasn’t been positive. In conversation, a Ryanair official who preferred to remain anonymous described the idea of social distancing on aircraft as “completely unenforceable and non-science based”.

Leaving the middle seat free has been suggested, but it’s not just physically impractical, it would spell suicide for the operator. An aircraft needs to be at least two-thirds full to make a flight profitable. “Even with fuel prices low, economically you cannot make money from an aircraft that’s 66 per cent full,” says Thomas Budd, a lecturer in airport planning and management at Cranfield University.

Instead, Ryanair is insisting that all passengers and crew will have to wear face masks. Flyers will be required to ask before using the toilet – something they thankfully won’t be charged for after the low-cost carrier quickly shelved this unpopular policy. There will be no food service, and you’ll have to do your duty-free shopping before you get on board.

Many passengers are concerned about sharing ‘recycled’ air onboard a flight, but they’re falling for a common misconception, says Budd. The plane’s environmental control systems used to maintain cabin pressure mix bleed air taken from the engines with recycled air from the cabin before passing it through ultra-fine HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters.

According to the airlines’ trade association, IATA, these filters are equivalent in performance to those used in hospitals and industrial settings, capturing and neutralising 99 per cent of airborne microbes. They render the air within the cabin cleaner than most of us breathe on the ground.

In reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus, Ryanair – like all EU-based carriers – is bound by the recently issued European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) guidelines for safe commercial air travel.

The agency has stopped short of calling for social distancing on planes or demanding ‘immunity passports’, citing the inaccuracy of antibody tests and the risk of false-negatives. However, to deal with the pandemic, it has introduced a range of measures to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 during flights, including reducing unnecessary social contact, encouraging better personal hygiene and advising on appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment.  

Face masks, frequent handwashing and physical distancing may offer passengers some protection, but proximity and biology still mean that communicable diseases like Covid-19 could quickly spread on an aeroplane – which is why Ryanair and other carriers hope that the real disease-prevention work will happen before you step onboard one of their aircraft.

Astronaut Bruce McCandless may have quipped that you can’t see borders from space, but arrive at any airport in the near future and you’ll be reminded that they’re very much in force on Planet Earth.

“Covid-19 is an invisible threat,” says Budd. “The question is, how do you tackle something you can’t see?” You can’t lock a door or build a wall, he adds, but you can keep people locked up, with the UK government introducing a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for new arrivals as it attempts to control the threat of importing infected passengers that could cause a dangerous second spike in infections.

Heathrow was the first UK airport to trial thermal-imaging cameras to check the temperature of arriving passengers but, like much of the UK’s response to coronavirus, we’re still playing catch-up. Across the world, countries are trialling various heat-detection methods, including full-body infrared scanners that measure skin temperature, ear gun thermometers and handheld infrared thermometers.

If passengers have a temperature of 38°C or above, they’re unlikely to be allowed to board an aircraft. Thankfully, if you’ve been scanned and deemed safe on departure, that should be enough for passengers travelling within the EU.

The efficacy of heat-scanning continues to be debated, with Public Health England describing it as having “little clinical value”. It does, however, send a powerful signal. The technology may be inexact and imprecise, but its function may be less about identifying infected people than reassuring other passengers that air travel is safe.

Technologist and Harvard lecturer Bruce Scheiner defined this in his concept of ‘security as theatre’. In 2009, his influential essay explored the links between increasing airport security and terrorism, concluding that these technologies “make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security”.

Budd agrees that the measures enacted at airports are, to an extent, performative – providing reassurance to passengers rather than protection. In the short term, a temperature check, like a passport check, may become a requirement for international travel. In the future, there may be no checks at all.

Budd is part of the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre at Cranfield University. The new £65m centre is due to open in mid-2020. He and colleagues are exploring how to create a ‘seamless journey’ where disruptive digital technologies can increase safety and improve passenger satisfaction.

“There’s an increased urgency about how airports can monitor, influence and predict passenger behaviour,” Budd says – with technology such as CCTV and AI doing the heavy lifting. To cope with coronavirus threats, he believes airports will increasingly use cameras and sensor technology to monitor passengers, identifying – and potentially predicting – where large groups of people may gather, enabling them to be dispersed.

‘There is a potential for a paradigm shift in the way we consider the value of travel. Is it about the cost or the experience?’

Thomas Budd, Cranfield University

In an example of increasing automation at airports, visitors to Hamad International Airport in Qatar will be greeted by the sight of a swarm of disinfectant robots working silently to keep the terminal clean. The fully automated units emit powerful UV-C light that can kill infectious microorganisms, including coronavirus.

When the threat of coronavirus passes, such technologies can be used to improve the customer experience. Automated assistants and voice-operated robots can improve wayfinding in the terminal. Developments such as off-airport check-in, virtual boarding and biometric identification can cut terminal time to an absolute minimum. In pleasant news for all travellers, boarding-time scrums may become a thing of the past, as technology simplifies and streamlines the journey and gets you on to a plane and into the air as quickly as possible.  

In regard to the planes themselves, the global pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for Boeing, the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturer. Already facing a crisis with software issues that saw hundreds of 737 Max aircraft grounded, the US giant finished April 2020 with a continuing fall in its order book.

Covid-19 is driving a hole through the aircraft manufacturing industry, with airlines using this as an opportunity to reassess their fleet requirements and to shift to more fuel-efficient, dual-engine aircraft.

Despite problems with the single-aisle airliner, Ryanair remains committed to its order of 135 Boeing-737 Max 200 aircraft. Described by a spokesperson at the company as a “gamechanger”, the upgraded 737 Max can carry 4 per cent more passengers (197 seats compared to 189) and is 16 per cent more fuel-efficient.

Ryanair’s investment is based on its belief that the commercial airline industry will return to something approaching normal relatively soon. Others are more cautious, with EasyJet delaying its £4.5bn purchase of Airbus aircraft, predicting a dramatic short-term fall in demand that won’t reach pre-Covid-19 highs until at least 2021.

Before the coronavirus crisis, airlines across the world had already begun to replace wide-body, two-aisle aircraft such as the four-engine Airbus A380 and iconic Boeing 747 in favour of dual-engine aircraft equipped with a new generation of larger and more fuel-efficient turbofan engines.

When it entered service in 2007, the double-decker A380 was heralded as the future of flight, but it’s due to limp out of service as orders dry up and operators reconsider their plans. In the end, Airbus is unlikely to have recouped the estimated $25bn (£20bn) development cost of this giant of the skies.

It’s not the only iconic aircraft to face an ignominious end, says James Cole, head of transactions and forecasting at global engineering firm Mott MacDonald “We’ve seen the last of the Boeing 767, 757, the remainder of the last of the 747s, some of the old 777s. We’ll also see the last of the Airbus A340s,” he states.

Airbus is betting its future on new versions of its dual-engine A320, a narrow-body aircraft that is favoured by short-haul carriers. Its new long-range A321LR can transport 220 passengers over 4,700 nautical miles (8,700km) without refuelling, courtesy of a new fuel tank in the passenger hold. The operational capacity opens up more point-to-point services, Cole says, which is better for travellers. As well as 20 per cent lower fuel burn per-seat, the aircraft’s engines are 50 per cent quieter, making flights more pleasant too.

The shocks through the industry will accelerate the trend towards airlines investing in smaller, more efficient dual-engine aircraft such as the A321LR and B787 for longer-haul flights, Coles believes. “While physically smaller, these aircraft offer as good – and in some cases better – seat-mile costs as larger aircraft,” which could translate into cheaper flights, if perhaps a little less comfortable.

In February 2020, Rolls-Royce began producing blades for its UltraFan engine. The composite blades are built up from hundreds of layers of carbon fibre, which are filled with a resin that helps to set the blades when heat and pressure are applied. They’re finished with a titanium tip that’s strong enough to force vast amounts of air into the engine.

At an incredible 3.55 metres in diameter, a set of the UltraFan’s blades is almost the same width as the fuselage on a single-aisle airliner. Larger blades make the engine more efficient, with a bypass ratio of 15:1, three times that of its existing Trent 700 engine. The composite blades and fan case are around 350kg lighter than existing engine technologies. That’s a 700kg weight saving for a twin-engine aircraft – a massive weight reduction that translates into fuel (and cost) savings for the operator.

Alongside GE’s GEnx engine, the UltraFan is part of a new generation of larger and more efficient turbofan engines that are pushing current aircraft engine technology to its limits. The coronavirus crisis has shaken the industry to its core, but investments in new engine technology are driven by a potentially more significant existential threat – climate change.

In June 2019, Rolls-Royce was one of seven industry partners that joined together to form ACARE (Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research and Innovation in Europe), with some ambitious aims for transforming the industry. By 2050, ACARE aims to have cut CO2 emissions by 75 per cent (per passenger km), NO2 emissions by a staggering 90 per cent, and noise levels by 65 per cent.

In April 2020, Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Siemens announced the end of their E-Fan X collaborative programme to develop an electric aircraft. The ambitious project would have seen the partners replace one of the four turbofan engines on a BAe 146 plane with a Rolls-Royce-adapted Siemens electric motor. The size of a beer keg, this hugely powerful generator can produce up to 2.5MW – enough power to supply 2,500 homes. Its charge was to be supplied by a monstrous two-tonne battery that would have enabled in-flight testing of an electric power unit alongside three traditional turboprops.

Although the project became another victim of the coronavirus pandemic, it doesn’t spell the end for the technology, says Richard Goodhead, senior vice president at Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace. “Taking the programme to flight-test at this point in the evolution of the technology was not worth the cost,” he says, but Rolls-Royce is continuing to invest in its electric power unit, with tests continuing at facilities in Bristol and Trondheim, ready to be picked up again. “That testing will put us in an extremely strong position to support any future decision, by an airframer or a government, to invest in a compatible early hybrid-electric flight demonstrator.”

The electric-powered E-Fan X may not have flown, but in May 2020, a 10-seater (nine passengers and one pilot) Cessna Caravan did, becoming the world’s largest all-electric aircraft to fly. Powered by a 750-horsepower (560kW) magni500 propulsion system, the plane is expected to hit a top speed of 114mph and have a range of up to 100 miles. If it passes all certification checks, it could enter service in late 2021.

New developments in engine technology and increasing aeroplane efficiency are critical to the long-term survival of the industry, Cole believes. “The climate-change issues affecting aviation won’t disappear,” he says.

Is there a risk that coronavirus could bring a halt to new technological development as cost-cutting takes hold? Not necessarily, says Cole. Engine development can take years, with certification and operator adoption other hurdles that must be overcome. That’s before you even begin to discuss the separate challenge of reducing the weight of batteries to make electric-powered flight realistic.

But across the world, there’s a consensus that electrification is the future. “This crisis will provide the industry with an opportunity to recalibrate and focus on the subjects that passengers are passionate about,” Goodhead explains. “When this is over, sustainability and cleaner flying options are going to come back to the top of the agenda, stronger than ever before.”

“These large disruptions are a point where we can re-evaluate how we approach airports and air travel,” says Budd. After the September 11 attacks, flights and airports felt completely different as the world adjusted to a new threat. Instead of inhibiting creativity, this provided a catalyst for positive change, he believes.

In an industry that has, for so long, been focused on volume and growth – seemingly oblivious to the impact on the environment – he believes as a society we may reappraise how we consider air travel. “There is a potential for a paradigm shift in the way we consider the value of travel,” says Budd. “Is it about the cost or the experience?”

As the world emerges from global lockdown, many people will be wondering whether we need to fly at all. On the other hand, if our enforced isolation has shown us one thing, it’s that digital experiences struggle to replicate physical ones.

Forecasting the future is difficult, but with a vaccine and suitable controls, Cole predicts a return to normality for the industry by 2023. “People still want to have experiences. That passion will never change.”

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