Perils of prediction

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Predictions can prove embarrassing. And airlines are much more cautious these days

If Flight International had polled airlines 30 years ago for their predictions on long-term developments within the industry, the answers would have been exciting, ambitious and possibly outrageous. They would also have born little or no relationship to subsequent events.

If those airlines were asked today about their long-term requirements, their answers would be different - although the need for quietness and efficiency would still exist.

Three decades ago airlines would have been predicting, and seeking, increased speed, capacity and probably vertical or vertical/short take-off and landing (VTOL or V/STOL) ability for their short-haul fleets. Now they are less visionary, with no burning desires to tackle high-risk technologies for additional speed. Instead, they are more interested in efficiency and reliability.

Airlines want low-risk, competitively priced designs with low maintenance costs, while their financiers want strong residual value potential. In the 1980s, the spectre of high technical risks disuaded airlines from signing up for the propfan engine, despite concerted efforts by the manufacturers to sell them on the idea of the considerable efficiency gains.

Civil heyday

"The heyday of civil aviation has had its peak," says Virgin Atlantic's head of flight technical services Geoff Clark. "Economic issues are now of overwhelming concern. We are being pushed into a corner by environmental pressure, and airway and airport congestion. There is also the prospect that kerosene supplies will begin to come under pressure within 30-40 years," says Clark. These factors have forced modern airlines to temper their ambitions, he adds.

Some of the predictions from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s make interesting reading. After its formation in 1946, British European Airways (BEA) became a pioneer of helicopter shuttle services, operating flights from London Heathrow to central London and Birmingham. But by 1954, BEA's then chief executive Sir Peter Masefield was disillusioned with rotary-wing transport, describing the helicopter as "small, slow, rather noisy and pretty expensive".

Masefield, however, was convinced that VTOL was the way to go, predicting widespread use of 50-seat, 140kt (240km/h) helicopters by 1964. He said the helicopter "would have a good run" before being made obsolete by the end of the 1960s by the first VTOL jets.

Compound dream

The Fairey Rotodyne compound helicopter was flown in 1956, and its 48-seat capacity, 160kt cruise speed and 650km (350nm) range promised to realise Masefield's dream. But it proved too noisy and costly and was cancelled in 1962. By 1971, BEA was nowhere near realising Masefield's ambitions, but was studying the concept of such compound helicopters with a desire to operate a 230kt 90-seater from London to Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels.

When asked at the beginning of the 1970s what he envisaged BEA would look like by the mid-1990s, then chairman Henry Marking was optimistic about city centre to city centre air travel. He expected that, by 1996, his airline would be operating direct short-haul services between city centres using a VTOL jet airliner. At that time, Marking's predecessor at BEA, Sir Anthony Milward, was convinced a VTOL jet airliner could be developed and offer the necessary economics and quietness, but he cautioned that it would take "all of 20 years" to develop, and require an investment of over £1 billion (at 1971 prices).

By 1971, Hawker Siddeley had a fairly concrete concept for a 520kt, 100-120-seat V/STOL airliner, the HS141. The aircraft had two conventional wing-mounted turbofans and 10 lift engines housed in fairings either side of the fuselage. As airline requirements shifted from high-risk and high-cost technologies to more simple basics, the HS141 failed to find a market. It was to take 20 more years before direct passenger services between the centres of London and Paris became a reality. But the mode of transport was the 250km/h (155mph) Eurostar train.

From the start of air transport until the mid-1970s, increasing speed was at the top of most airlines' wish lists. It was not until the fuel crisis in the early 1970s that priorities changed, with operating costs (and capacity) moving above speed.

With the flurry of supersonic transport (SST) projects in the late 1960s (Aerospatiale/BAC Concorde, Boeing 2707 and Tupolev Tu-144), even the mighty Boeing had a pessimistic long-term outlook for its subsonic product line. This affected its thinking on the embryonic 400-seat 747. "Many of the airlines, and the people at Boeing, thought that the 747 was an aeroplane with a limited future because the SST was going to take all the business," remembers Joe Sutter, who was 747 director of engineering from the early days of the project.

Around the same time, UK aerospace designer and inventor Barnes Wallis not only predicted the development of a 2,700kt-capable, paper dart-shaped airliner by the 1980s, but believed that the aircraft would be a VTOL design. He thought such an aircraft could be produced quickly enough to eliminate the need to build a third London airport.

Realism takes over

With the industry's outlook for subsonic passenger aircraft so bleak and the 747 still at the planning stage, Boeing decided to ensure the design had good long-term prospects as a freighter, and put the flightdeck above the main deck to provide a full-length cargo compartment and nose loading capability. As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the imaginative atmosphere of the decade that had spawned the moon missions and the SST programmes was replaced by realism. This was to see a strong environmental movement and an economic downturn sparked by a fuel crisis.

In its 1967 forecast, the International Air Transport Association predicted a market for 1,250 SSTs between 1972 and 1978, and BAC (now British Aerospace) estimated it would sell at least 250 Concordes. History records that just 14 production Concordes were delivered to two customers - Air France and British Airways - while the Boeing 2707 was cancelled in 1972. The US manufacturer has, however, built 1,200 747s and production continues.

With Concorde flights representing less than 1% of its two customers' operations, there is little, if any, burning need for a replacement, making the prospects for early development of a second generation SST remote. Neither Boeing nor Airbus expect any large-scale requirement for such an aircraft within in the next 20 years. The lack of a clear market, combined with ever increasing environmental issues, means that neither manufacturer is pursuing SST studies.

Why are the airlines not interested? Surely business passengers would rather travel across the Atlantic in 3h instead of 7h, or across the Pacific in 6h instead of 12h. Emirates senior general manager Nigel Page concedes the perfect SST (little or no noise/boom/environmental/ cost/risk issues) would be an interesting proposition, but like many airline executives looks for the most he can gain from today's technology.

"The airlines purely want an aircraft that will make money. It must be able to do so for a variety of markets, be it business, holiday, short or long range," says Page. "We also want the aircraft to have good cargo carrying capability, and there is an increasing demand for long range. Although we may not need the ultimate endurance, it is good to have range available to provide flexibility on routings."

Given that it will cost Airbus at least $12 billion to develop the A3XX, then the cost of building a new supersonic airliner does not bear thinking about. Such a project would almost certainly be beyond the resources of a single company, so it is likely a worldwide team would have to be created to produce the aircraft. A new SST would therefore have little competitive appeal for the manufacturers involved and dubious commercial value for an airline business that is beginning to gravitate around four or five giant, global alliances.

With transit time unlikely to decrease, Chris Brady, Virgin Atlantic's general manager product development wants to see the whole travelling process from arrival at the airport simplified. "Ideally, airport terminals would be a tiered design and built underground below the runway, with the car park at the bottom," says Brady. He would like his passengers to travel vertically rather than horizontally through the airport to speed up the process.

Faster ground handling

Each new airport that has opened recently has been "larger and flatter", says Brady, forcing passengers to walk further and further from check-ins to gates. Brady's underground airport design would allow passengers to travel up one level from car park to check-in, another to departures, before emerging on the apron to board the aircraft.

Many scheduled sector timings have increased rather than decreased as the air transport industry has matured, to cater for congestion and infrastructure constraints. Passengers would welcome any efforts to speed up ground processing.

Like many of the ideas vaunted by the early jet pioneers, however, there is likely to be a gulf between current ideals and future reality.