Sept. 14 - Environmental groups say they are encouraged by ambitious plans recently announced by Airbus to fly aircraft in flock formation by the middle of this century. The company's Smarter Skies concepts also include steeper take-offs to reduce journey times and gentler, glide-in landings. Jim Drury has more.
This isn't birds flying in formation, but Airbus's futuristic vision of air travel. The aviation giant says by 2050 groups of planes could fly side by side, making air travel more efficient and reducing carbon emissions at the same time. It may seem like a radical idea but Airbus engineering executive vice president Charles Champion says it makes perfect sense for the most in-demand destinations . SOUNDBITE (English) CHARLES CHAMPION, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT ENGINEERING, AIRBUS, SAYING: "Formation flying, actually we're not talking about the Red Arrows, so you're not wing-to-wing flying together but it's more like birds, talking about maybe one nautical mile separation, so you actually use the wake of the aircraft in front of you to burn less fuel. Actually we did that with the A400M, our military aircraft, and the pilot told me that when you're behind the aircraft actually you save maybe ten to fifteen percent more fuel." The airline's Smarter Skies concepts also include Assisted Eco Climb take-off where planes without undercarriages are propelled skywards by mechanical trolleys. Aircraft could 'self-organise' in so-called Express Skyways, selecting the most efficient and environmentally-friendly routes. And, when back on the ground, planes could be manoeuvred onto a track system at the airport using electro-magnetic motors built into the track. Aviation analyst Howard Wheeldon insists improvements don't all have to be cutting edge. SOUNDBITE (English) HOWARD WHEELDON, AVIATION ANALYST, SAYING: "Airports themselves are very very inefficient structures and of course the amount of taxiing on the airport and indeed the delays caused in getting into the airport, aircraft having to fly around for 15, 20 minutes, often over half an hour before they can actually land. There's lots of ways you can actually save fuel and that's before you start bringing in even better technology." Airbus says its plans could cut average flights by 13 minutes and save almost 30 million tonnes of avoidable C02 emissions a year. Environmental lawyer Alan Andrews calls the plans exciting, and evidence that tough EU emissions targets are affecting airlines' thinking. But he offers a word of caution. SOUNDBITE (English) ALAN ANDREWS, ENVIRONMENTAL LAWYER FOR CLIENTEARTH, SAYING: "What we've got to bear in mind here is the overall aim of these ideas is to meet an insatiable demand for air travel. That's clearly stated in the plans. That's not going to achieve the overall reductions in carbon dioxide and other pollutants like oxides of nitrogen, which are harmful to human health and the environment. So while we might see a reduction in the emissions from each plane that's taking off, the overall impact of the industry is going to continue to grow in terms of emissions of carbon." Airbus insists it's serious about cutting emissions and has pledged to use sustainable biofuels and other alternative energy sources. None of the proposed technologies are close to fruition, but Airbus says that in a world of diminishing resources it's committed to blue-sky thinking.