We’ll likely see Creeping incrementalism in the near future when we look at new aircraft. You might ask, when will we see the next all-new airplane announcement from Airbus or Boeing? Please don’t hold your breath, as it won’t be coming soon. The reason is that neither OEM wants to build a new airplane based on existing technology as we approach the cusp of major technological change. Incremental changes to existing models will be all we see until a revolutionary change enables substantial performance improvements. Let’s examine the key changes that will revolutionize the next generation of aircraft, why they significantly depart from what we have today, and whether they can be retrofitted to existing aircraft.
PROPULSION AND ELECTRIFICATION
We’ve just seen the next generation of conventional engines, the GTF and LEAP, provide a 15-16% improvement in fuel economy and emissions for narrow-body aircraft. But by 2030, improvements may be only incremental, in the 5-10% range, for conventional powerplants. That isn’t enough to design a new airplane around, particularly as we move into a new era with alternative propulsion options.
Will the basis of propulsion change for the next generation of aircraft? The next aircraft must be flexible enough to accommodate either conventional or alternative propulsion systems. Those alternatives will include hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity and hybrid systems that include electric propulsion for cruising with the assistance of conventional engines for take-off and landing. This will be a major departure from the current aircraft designs.
Hydrogen propulsion will require an entirely different airport infrastructure than we have for JetA fuel delivery today. That may be a larger challenge than either burning hydrogen directly in combustion or having fuel cells generate electricity. Airbus is leading the R&D efforts with hydrogen, and Europe is taking hydrogen infrastructure development more seriously than the US.
Battery systems will accommodate smaller regional aircraft but remain well into the future for larger aircraft, as power-to-weight ratios won’t support them. While solid-state batteries show promise in the lab, it is one thing to manufacture a cell within a laboratory and another to transition to mass production successfully. By 2030, we may have a breakthrough and 900 KWH/kg levels if everything goes according to plan – but since nothing seems to be on time and budget, let’s say 2035. Even then, with 4.5 times the energy density we see today, the power-to-weight ratio will remain inadequate for the electrification of large high-speed aircraft.
Of course, not burning “fossil fuels” and instead using SAF would make the industry carbon-neutral. This appears to be the low-hanging fruit of what could be possible by 2035. That would provide an interim step moving toward the 2050 carbon-neutral commitment for the industry.
Today’s airplanes look like the first jets from the late 1950s. Tubular fuselage with swept wings and engines underneath the wing still rules, with flying wings left to stealth bombers. New designs abound, from KLM’s V-shaped aircraft to rear-engined electric designs. NASA’s truss-based wing looks like a potential winner among competing designs at Boeing, and several options are on the drawing board at both Airbus and Boeing for lifting-body jets that would improve fuel economy by 10-20%.
But aerodynamics can also support creeping incrementalism. We’ve seen active winglets on business jets change fuel economy by double digits, so aerodynamics can significantly impact fuel burn and carbon emissions. Active winglets can be retrofitted to existing airliners to help extend their economic lives as the science of aerodynamics does work. Available choices include a revolutionary design for new aircraft or retrofit to existing aircraft.
AUTOMATION AND THE PILOT SHORTAGE
Tomorrow’s airplanes will likely be single-pilot capable, with more advanced automation enabling cabin crews to be reduced significantly. In the 1950s, at the dawn of the jet age, we had the pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operators in aircraft. The industry has seen the latter three positions eliminated, and the co-pilot is next up on the list. Concerns about the pilot’s health have been somewhat assuaged by the Garmin Autoland system, available on several business aircraft, which can land an aircraft at the nearest suitable airport automatically and even alerts Air Traffic Control to the emergency.
Automation technology has been evolving for years. I remember a flight into London Heathrow in the late 1980s into virtually zero-zero conditions on an L-1011 that used its Autoland system rather than divert. The most difficult part of that landing was finding the taxiway in the zero-zero visibility fog to clear the runway. Today’s technology is much more capable. Many light business jets are single-pilot capable and owner-flown. But passengers being comfortable with only one pilot may be the sticking point to a potential solution.
We foresee a phased rollout of single-pilot operations from the smallest to the largest aircraft. Perhaps initially, we’ll only see automation on passenger planes with 50 or fewer seats, with growth in the seat count as passengers become more comfortable with single-pilot operations and a comparable safety record is established.
Autopilots have been around a lot longer than self-driving cars, and the technologies behind them are mature and stable. It is a matter of regulatory and passenger comfort holding the industry back today. Again, we can be either revolutionary or retrofit this technology.