Something in the Air

  • In the face of environmental concerns and the astronomical costs involved in developing aircraft, new aeronautical competitors are still joining the race to make planes and passenger numbers are rising. PORT explores an industry that’s looking to the skies
    Words Alyn Griffiths
    Images Erik Wåhlström
    and Nacho Alegre

    Infographic Kuchar Swara

    Despite the fragile state of the world economy, the lingering threat of terrorism, and ongoing criticism of aviation’s contribution to carbon emissions, the demand for air travel continues to grow by 4 to 5 percent each year. This is good news for the industry, which is directly responsible for over eight million jobs globally and generates around £347 billion per year – about the annual GDP of Switzerland.

  • The business of designing and manufacturing aircraft offers the potential for huge rewards, but is also fraught with risk. The world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, operate a fiercely competitive duopoly, having absorbed or vanquished the majority of their smaller rivals in recent decades. In 2012, Airbus took orders for 833 aircraft, at a value of £62 billion, while Boeing reported total revenue of £53 billion, including £21 billion from its defence, space and security operations. However, the grounding of Boeing’s flagship 787 Dreamliner in January, due to a problem with its batteries, demonstrated just how precarious the industry can be. “When you build a new aircraft, you dig a huge debt hole that only turns into profit if the aircraft is in service for 15 to 20 years,” explains Professor Ian Poll, who heads the aerospace engineering course at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire, England. “You’re risking the company every time you develop a new plane, and if you don’t deliver the long-term return then you’re sunk.”

    For the industry’s big two, the risks continue to pay off as passenger numbers rise and airlines keep placing orders. But Gregor Dirks, Chief Innovator at the Airbus Innovation Cell at the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) headquarters in Toulouse, France, warns that complacency represents a different type of risk, and believes that aircraft manufacturers must continue to innovate if they wish to flourish. “Both as a company and as an industry, we have so much invested in the current processes and infrastructure that it is extremely difficult to be agile and to develop new ideas quickly,” he explains. “Obstacles like cost and certification can block innovation – but it is our job to identify the most important issues and to push these things forward.”

    Right: Professor Ian Poll heads the aerospace engineering course at Cranfield University, where students are taught aircraft design and all of the accompanying technologies, from propulsion engineering to aerodynamics and flight mechanics


    Photography Mariano Herrera

  • Airbus and Boeing are also under threat from emerging nations like Brazil, Russia and China, which have all begun to produce aircraft in recent years. Government support, military contracts and strengthening relationships with global suppliers are helping to improve production capabilities in these nations. Although it is likely to be decades, rather than years, before they can offer serious competition to Airbus and Boeing, Dirks confirms the threat is being taken seriously. “To stay ahead of the competition we need to think like a start-up and imagine what we would do if we entered the industry from scratch,” he says. Airbus Innovation Cell’s ambitious remit to challenge existing ways of working is intended to help the company retain its pioneering position in the battle for the skies. Although some of the fantastical visions they deliver embody the notion of blue-sky thinking, they are also involved in developing more immediate and practicable ideas, including working with air traffic control to improve the performance of congested airports. “We believe that more efficient air traffic management could knock 13 minutes off the average journey,” says Dirks. It doesn’t sound like much, but this reduction could save nine million tonnes of fuel annually – and help passengers avoid a combined 500 million extra hours on board aircraft.
    Right: Click to view infographic up close.
    §Illustration Giacomo Gambineri


  • Aircraft arrive at the plant in six sections, which are joined at a single assembly station before the engines are attached
    Left: Aircraft arrive at the plant in six sections, which are joined at a single assembly station before the engines are attached


    Right: Gregor Dirks is Chief Innovator at the Airbus Innovation Cell in Toulouse, France, which develops radical visions for the future of aviation


    Above: A pre-equipped centre fuselage section waiting for final assembly. Cabin furnishing and painting takes place in Hamburg once the aircraft is fully assembled

  • A380interiorThe other key challenge facing the manufacturers of commercial jets is the pressure to improve fuel economy and cut carbon emissions. The airline industry has pledged to enhance fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent a year between now and 2020, and to halve net carbon emissions by 2050, forcing aircraft manufacturers to seek both immediate and long-term solutions. Airbus claims that more than 90 percent of its research and technology budget is spent on tackling environmental issues. It is currently exploring biofuels and other alternative energy sources, as well as more extreme ideas for saving fuel, such as coordinating planes to soar in formation like birds to reduce drag.
    Top: A scale model of Priestmangoode’s design for a first class seat of inside Lufthansa’s A380 cabin. Paul Priestman, describes the seat as the “hero piece” – the element passengers interact with and remember most
    Photography Philip Sinden

    Ian Poll is also aware that the next generation of aircraft designers needs to be prepared for the pressure of increasing environmental concerns, although he is keen to point out that this is an area of ongoing research without a determined plan of action. “The interaction between the global aviation fleet and the environment is very complicated indeed and is not yet fully understood,” he claims. “I say to the students that this is going to be their problem and if they don’t understand it now, the chance of solutions arising in the time frames they’re needed is small.”

    Cranfield Aerospace, the university’s commercial unit, provides facilities for students and aircraft manufacturers to develop and test prototypes of radical new aircraft shapes, such as Boeing’s blended wing X-48. This wedge-shaped plane offers an alternative to the tube and wing configuration, but Poll points out that it will take a significant shift in attitudes and priorities for such revolutionary ideas to become reality. “It’s hard to say at what point the pressure might become high enough to warrant the risk required to put a new shape into production,” he says. “We can all fiddle about on the backs of envelopes with wonderful futuristic designs; the real skill is in extracting the maximum practical benefit in the commercial environment.”

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    Above left: Like many of the other sections, the fuselage is so large it has to be transported from a plant in Saint-Nazaire on specially commissioned roll-on roll-off ships.


    Once the fuselage sections have been joined and mated with the wings, the landing gear is installed together with the horizontal tail plane and vertical fin


    Above: The engines are among the final components to be fitted before tests are carried out on the electric and hydraulic systems, onboard computer, mobile parts and landing gear

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    Illustration Giacomo Gambineri &
    Alyn Griffiths

    Developing lighter, more aerodynamic aircraft and refining the processes required to build and maintain them is the goal of aerospace research and development teams the world over. Mats Palmberg, Vice President and Head of Marketing and Future Products at Saab Aeronautics in Linköping, Sweden, explains that design and manufacturing is as important in the development of military aircraft as it is in commercial planes. In the case of Saab’s latest fighter jet, the Gripen E, the intelligent overhaul of an existing model, with a focus on low maintenance, helps to reduce cost without compromising performance. “Our customers are not just interested in the procurement cost but also in the cost of operating the aircraft over its lifecycle,” he says. The plane is designed to perform multiple roles (fighter, attack and reconnaissance) and its hardware and software systems are easy to update, further enhancing both sustainability and affordability.

    In order to continuously improve its methods, Saab examines other industries to identify ideas that can also be applied to aerospace design and manufacture. “We have looked at how the car industry is able to produce enormous numbers of cars and how similar practices could be applied to airframe manufacturing,” says Palmberg, adding that the gaming industry also provides a benchmark for sophisticated simulation techniques, similar to those used to train pilots. This cross-pollination of ideas and technologies may eventually enable the aerospace industry to accelerate the pace at which new ideas are developed and implemented.

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    Saab employs around 4,500 staff and 500 consultants at its production and assembly facility in the town of Linköping, Sweden

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    Left: Saab Gripen during final assembly
    Right: Factory exterior, Linköping


  • Some of the most revolutionary developments affecting contemporary aeronautics involve unmanned airborne systems, which are currently used predominantly for military, surveillance and scientific purposes. Saab designs and produces unmanned vehicles, or drones, which Palmberg says have been successfully deployed on reconnaissance missions in recent conflicts. “Unmanned systems have superior information acquisition capability in comparison to piloted systems, because they’re more affordable and can stay airborne for 48 hours without needing to come down to change or rest the crew,” he states.

    “It is possible that one day we will see unmanned vehicles being used to transport goods, but probably not passengers because I think people would feel uneasy knowing there isn’t a pilot there to take control if something goes wrong.” Such radical proposals may seem implausible, or even controversial, but the benefits are apparent and are already being explored in various scenarios.While significant investments are being made to improve the performance and efficiency of modern aircraft and aircraft manufacture, the priority for passengers is the experience of flying, which for many has become a chore involving unintelligible online booking systems, stringent security procedures, restrictions on cabin baggage, and overcrowded airports miles out of town. London design consultancy Priestmangoode has been involved with the airline industry since working on the design of a new business class seat for Virgin Atlantic in the early 90s, and director Paul Priestman explains that they are regularly approached to overhaul the entire passenger service, from home to destination. “Flying can be a very stressful experience, and unless you can help the airline provide a complete service it doesn’t matter how beautiful the plane is,” he says. “That means taking care of everything from the website, to the cabin crew’s uniforms, and the comfort of the seat.” This level of control allows airlines to offer a consistent branded experience, while passengers benefit from a more streamlined and personal service.

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    Top left to right: Gripen is made from a combination of aluminium and composite materials that reduce weight and fuel consumption

    Above: Mats Palmberg, Vice President and Head of Marketing and Future Products at Saab Aeronautics

  • Priestmangoode also creates concepts that demonstrate how the next generation of aircraft could be fitted out to improve the onboard experience. The detailed mock-ups they produce help airframe manufacturers sell these ideas to airlines, and are the equivalent of a radical concept car designed to show off the potential of a new model. “The great thing about working with the airframe manufacturers is that we’re asked to look 20 or 30 years ahead, so we can incorporate future technologies,” says Priestman. Using their concept for the Airbus A350 as an example, he points to the application of adjustable mood lighting, larger windows, and infrared devices that help guide passengers to the correct seat, as ways in which design can reduce stress and improve the onboard experience.

    From the details of the passenger experience, to much broader issues such as environmental concerns, new technologies and competition from emerging markets, the aviation industry knows that change is on the horizon. For over a century, flight has fascinated us and opened up the world, enabling the sharing of commodities and knowledge. It is now down to the airlines, their engineers and designers to develop a new generation of smarter, cleaner and more efficient aircraft that will secure a successful and sustainable future for flying.

    Right: Paul Priestman at Priestmangoode’s offices in central London. “Some people might wonder if the days of air travel are numbered, but Boeing and Airbus are receiving more orders than ever before. It’s immensely exciting.”