High flyers to the rescue

Everyone benefits from aircraft technology research, and the Government should help fund it, says Chris Geoghegan, British Aerospace Airbus managing director

In the US, research and technology programmes are entirely government-funded to the tune of several billions of dollars each year. This recognises the strategic importance of the high-tech aerospace industry to the economy; a lack of commercial incentive in projects with a long time-scale, and a lack of opportunity to capture spin-off benefits commercially.

The picture in Europe is very different. Here, funding is only 50% of US levels and, in the UK, is much lower again. R&T funding for civil aircraft in the UK has reduced to just £20m a year under the Department of Trade and Industry’s Civil Aircraft Research and Demonstration (Carad) programme. That’s about 1% of total US funding and covers the wings, engines, equipment and avionic sectors.

Just one NASA project grant in the US, for a composite wing demonstrator, is worth $160m – more than the UK’s total R&T funding from Carad for five years.

The pity of it all is that society gains greatly from spin-offs and environmental benefits from aircraft technology. These benefits are tangible in areas such as fuel efficiency, noise and operating costs.

In the 1960s, aircraft spent less time in flight, took several hops and circuitous routes to cover long distances and could only land and take off at low angles of descent and climb. Today, technology has made forced detours for weather a thing of the past and reliability means aircraft achieve higher utilisation – flying 30% more hours with lower maintenance costs. Long-range aircraft like the Airbus A340 make direct, 12,000km flights to the Pacific Rim, instead of three separate legs covering 50% more distance and taking six hours longer.

Modern aircraft are not noisy. When a modern 150-seat airliner has climbed to 1,500ft on takeoff, just cutting back power reduces the 70dB(A) noise contour to half the ground area – mostly within the airport perimeter. This 70dB(A) level is the same noise level experienced inside a car travelling at 30mph.

Comparing the efficiency of early Boeing 747s with the new Airbus A340-600, each with a similar 375 seat capacity, you find the A340 burns 30% less fuel on a standard trip and has 15% longer range at full load.

Early 747s only met Stage 2 noise requirements; modern technologically advanced airframes like the A340 not only meet the tougher Stage 3 regulations but they average 8dB better than the requirement.

With over 40% lower cash operating costs per seat for the A340, the news for passengers’ pockets is equally good.

Meanwhile, a 150-seat A320 has lower fuel burn and CO2 output per passenger trip than a high-speed train. The A330 with Rolls-Royce Trent engines carrying 335 passengers is even better – it is the world’s most efficient airliner per passenger mile.

Modern civil aircraft technology achieves world-leading industrial innovation in integrated engineering design tools, production processes, materials, aerodynamics, systems control, quality control and lifetime support.

But there is still much to be done to improve aircraft operating efficiency further. Technology can improve aircraft efficiency and environmental impact by another 20% in the next decade. With technology and scale-effect benefits together, the planned 500-seat A3XX, for example, will have 30% lower fuel burn and CO2 output per passenger mile than the A340-300 which entered service in 1993.

Current technology projects addressing carbon composite primary structures could reduce aircraft weight by 20% with corresponding gains in fuel usage. Active laminar flow aerodynamics could reduce drag by 5-10% on wings and nacelles with additional gains. NOx emissions have already been halved over 15 years and studies continue on further reductions. The list goes on.

But all this costs money and, without additional funding, the UK is in danger of losing its lead to overseas competitors.

We already partner most of our technology programmes with suppliers and our partners internationally. Joint technology studies with universities are a broader but still integrated part of our technology supply chain. However, more work is needed that cannot be fully funded by industry alone.

Investment should be found from private and public sources in partnership, thus encouraging these benefits to continue and ensuring that air transport remains a sustainable industry.