14th June 2007

EasyJet Designs a New Airplane

posted in Aviation, Business, Technology |

In a reversal of the usual “Boeing or Airbus builds it and the airlines get to pick between the two” model, EasyJet, a European low-cost airline has proposed a new aircraft design. I wonder if this is also a symptom of the reduced competition from only really having two manufacturers. It departs from the traditional of these two organizations in some really important ways and is telling about how the big guys aren’t innovating enough in aircraft design (although the 787 comes close).

EasyJet flies lots of short-hop routes and they presumably know that cruise speed has little impact on gate-to-gate time for most passengers. Fly 50 knots slower and you save a TON of fuel. Also by going with an unducted turbine (its not clear what the difference is between this and a turbine-driven propeller) you get better efficiencies in the mid-altitudes where there is a ton less traffic and less climb and descent times. Those atltitudes are fairly empty because traditional ducted jet engines are really inefficient until you get up almost to 30,000 feet.

Combine that with a composite design (like the 787 but it sounds like they are taking it further more like my Columbia), and a relatively small passenger capacity (for lots of direct flights, shorter bording / exit times) and it seems like you have a real winner. They seem to think they can get Boeing ot Airbus to build it by 2015. I hope those guys are paying attention since it seems like an airplane like this could be a real successor to the 737 (which so far is pretty much the most successful commercial aircraft design in history on a number of metrics from safety to production).

Meanwhile there was an interesting program on NPR this morning about the “overloaded air traffic system”. While I grant that there are some choke points where things get overloaded, it was really disappointing to see the bullshit from the representative of the Airline Transport Association. Most of the time, in most of the country there is plenty of extra capacity (although I’ll grant that the controllers are probably overworked and that we potentially have a serious issue with mass retirements over the next couple of years).

The ATA, representing the major airlines, is creating a “crisis” here to mask the incompetence of their larger members. The big airlines are so out of control for a number of reasons, including poor systems, business model flaws (the crazy pricing system), their hub system, and others, that they are flailing around to blame others.

Let me give some examples- I’ve looked at the arrival schedules at the major airports and the same airline will have 100 airplanes arriving in the same 30 minutes. Go figure they have some traffic problems? They are surprised they have delays from this? They also haven’t figured out how to spread to the other feeder airports in a meaningful way. They love to complain about General Aviation (GA) as being part of the blame, but for the most part we are using the OTHER 5000 airports across the country and are in completely different sets of altitudes (at least until that EasyJet design comes into play).

American Airlines is so incompetent that I have witnessed multiple incidents of an airplane arriving only to have no ground crew to meet it and bring it into the gate. Their overall network of flights is so complicated and messed up that every little delay they have cascades into others. You could hope they could figure out how to not have 40 airplanes push-back to taxi for departure at the exact same time at a major airport, possibly even requiring the different airlines to coordinate a bit? But not only can’t they do that, they can’t even figure it out within the same airline- I don’t get why I frequently see a line of 10 American jets wasting fuel in a line out there waiting to depart.

So the ATA guy blames it on the ATC running on “world war 2 technology”. Scary old stuff like radar. What’s so wrong about radar? The modern radar is displayed on fairly new terminals that give the controller lots of data, that automatically identify aircraft by N-number, and all that stuff. Radar is a very reasonable technology to use in conjunction with other stuff, and while granted there have been hiccups in deploying some of the new systems, its just obnoxious the way they try to pass it off as ancient.

Things won’t really get better for air travel in this country until the old air carrier system dies for real and is replaced by the nimble new-guys. Let’s hope that congress can resist continuing to bail these guys out and prolong the situation.

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