Friday, January 28, 2005

Binge Drinking (Tupolev 144 and Concorde)

I recently read an article in the Sunday Times about the binge drinking problem in the UK. Excessive drinking, too much noise, trouble making and complaints from neighbours. This made me think about the two greatest binge drinkers and noisy trouble makers of the civil aviation world, the Concorde and its even rowdier big brother the Tu 144 :)

I have to make it clear that I have a lot of admiration for these two planes. Yes they failed in their mission (to bring supersonic travel to the masses) but they showed what could be done given the will (and more importantly a healthy bank balance). Unfortunately they both suffered from a severe drink problem not to mention excessive noise when let out of the airport.

Alexei Tupolev (son of the Russian "Aviator" Andrei Tupolev) and his team have been long been accused of using spies to steal Concorde's designs etc. While this may be true to a certain extent lets not forget that the Russian aerospace industry at its height was as capable as any other western equivalent.

Yes the two planes looked remarkably similar. However with a given set of design considerations (supersonic, preferably mach 2, approx 100 passengers) you would hardly expect one country to produce a plane that looked like a Cessna and the other that looked a jumbo. Language, culture, food may differ between countries but the laws of physics do not! They were both trying to achieve a similar goal and it no big surprise that the planes were similar in appearance.

I have been lucky to have been able to view both of these planes up close. Sometime in late 2000 when poor ol Concorde was in rehab (getting kevlar protection for the wing fuel tanks) I had the opportunity to visit a top secret russian airforce base deep in siberia . Naah not carried away there thanks to a Clancy novel I was reading recently. I did however visit the Monino Air Force Base museum just outside Moscow which is open to visitors.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Tu-144 at this museum was the sheer size. The size difference up close was quite amazing. The Tupolev is significantly bigger and it was designed to carry more passengers and go faster. The second thing that struck me was the sorry state it was kept in. The rusting dirty old fuselage appeared to be a sad end to what might have been.

Let me finish with a few interesting facts about the less known aircraft:

1. Tu-144 (Nato Codename: Charger) made its first flight on 31-Dec 1968 (2 months before Concorde). On 15-July-1969 it became the first passenger airliner to reach Mach 2.

2. The early Tu-144 models could not supercruise (supersonic cruise without the use of afterburners) unlike Concorde which drastically reduced the range of the Russian Jet.

3. The Tu-144D: I might be mistaken but I believe this model did indeed have the capability to supercruise. However it was too late in the day to convince anyone to buy it as even Concorde was beginning to look a failure at this stage.

4. The Tu-144s clocked up little over 100 passenger and also freight and mail only flights with Aeroflot (probably the most expensive post service in the world). It was eventually withdrawn from official service.

5. Sometime in 1996 and 1997 NASA/Boeing and Tupolev jointly dug a Tu-144 out of the ground and restored it to flying condition. This Tu-144LL (Flying Lab) was used for joint reasearch into the next generation supersonic aircraft.

I have said in my earlier post that the current new planes the 7E7, A380 and the A350 do not bring the two things I want to see the most : speed and comfort for the masses.

I doubt comfort will ever be available for economy class passengers as regardless of the size of the plane the airlines will cram it with seats. Therefore the only answer is speed. I know that I wont really care if I am squashed into a seat designed for hobbits if the flight time itself was only 2 or 3 hours :)

London to Australia in 3 hours? Mission Impossible? naah..just a matter of time.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

The A380 : So whats next? Brief thoughts on the future.

I may have painted a rosy picture for Airbus in my earlier posts but remember that starting around March there will be a period of intensive flight tests leading to certification and if one the test A380s goes down then things could turn upside down for Airbus. Crashes during flight tests for new aeroplanes are not unusual but the A380 is a high profile plane and such an event will not be taken lightly. I hasten to add that Airbus are not exactly the new kids on the block and they know what they are doing. Every effort will be made to ensure the safety of the plane and the people who fly in it. I do not mean to paint a negative picture or anything but accidents can happen inspite of best efforts.

The Tu-144 (Russian version of a supersonic passenger plane nicknamed the "Concordski" due to its startling (some say too startling) similarity to Concorde) was being demonstrated to airline heads from around the world at the Paris Airshow when it crashed and effectively dissapeared from the world of aviation. However it was even worse than concorde in terms of economics (which is saying a lot) so would not have succeded anyway.

So whats next?

1. Size: The A380 (and its variants) will probably be the last of the big planes in the current flying tube configuration. Work is underway on BWBs or Blended Wing Body aeroplanes which will carry well over 1000 people. Perhaps a BWB design will put Boeing back on top :)

2. Speed: Possible solution to the problem of the sonic boom or at least reduction to an acceptable level. Currently supersonic flight overland is prohibited in most areas. Supersonic passenger planes by their very nature are highly inefficient at subsonic speeds and their range is severly affected. All factors that killed Concorde.

Therefore either the research being done around the world into reducing the boom will pay off and we will see viable supersonic passenger planes or the radical new idea in point 3 will be the future in years to come.

3. Space: Trying to convey the idea in as simple terms as possible - launch a plane to earth orbit, cut engines, burn almost nil fuel (after having burned a lifetimes worth in getting to orbit in the first place), wait till you are over the country of choice and reenter and land sort of like the shuttle. This will enable incredible speeds that can never be achieved in earth's atmosphere. This is still far far away with too many complications (grannys in weight less environment and the hazards of reentry (columbia) to name a few) but probably not as crazy as it sounds.

Think of Burt Rutans awesome Spaceship 1 and the fact that Richard Branson has already ordered 5 ships to be built for Virgin Galactic. Perhaps this will be the first step to really revolutionising the world of aviation.

Low Cost Carriers (Hated or Loved?) and the 7E7/350

I was thinking about the best way of putting across my view of low cost airlines and I think they are best described by imagining a scenario. Assume you want to fly from A to B at time C but actually end up flying from D to E at time F (your bags will be lost enroute but that doesnt matter because you will already be dead when you arrive due to hunger/thirst resulting from you inability to afford the super expensive sandwiches and drinks on board). :)

To be honest that is not really a fair view however not entirely untrue. LCCs often fly from smaller airports which are usually farther away from the center of town then the major airports. ALso they fly at really odd hours (if you want the realy cheap tickets) which means you have to take a taxi at both ends.Also they offer very little flexibity with your tickets once they are booked. If you add all the costs then you might be better off with a proper airline.

However some LCCs have of course done extremely well and given the big boys a proper kick in the backside. Their business model pioneered by Southwest is quite simple. The main aspects are as far as possible operate a single type of aircraft (big time cost savings) and cut down on unnecssary frills (food, inflight entertainment, classes etc). Basically the idea is to treat a plane as a bus and no more. This did work very well but what I am seeing now is that LCCs who performed very well initially are now rapidly expanding their fleets, going to different a/c types in some cases, fighting for better (and more expensive) slot times and flying to main airports at better times. This is great but they might be breaking out of their original business model and fast becoming a proper airline and before they know it they will no longer be "low cost".

The 7E7 and A350 could probably fit in with LCCs who want to start offering cheap intercontinental flights on a large scale. LCCs to date have largely focused on short range routes. Any thoughts?

Boeing and the A380

In my last post I expressed my thoughts about the A380. So whats the mighty Boeing doing about it?

I feel that Boeing unfortunately under estimated Airbus from the time Airbus was first formed. First of all I doubt they really expected Airbus to build the 380 and were convinced that no one would want to buy it anyway. They were sure that if there was a serious demand for higher capacity then it would be a lot easier for them to extend the upper deck on the 747 than for Airbus to design a double decker jumbo from scratch.

It looks like Boeing have been struggling with internal management problems etc recently and really look like they took their eye of the ball the past few years. Airbus really surprised them with their rapid growth and eventually managed to exceed sales.

By the time they realised that Airbus were actually going build the 380 and were winning lots of orders I guess it was a bit too late to offer a bigger 747. Indeed they can offer a new 747 but there probably wont be a big enough market for two super jumbos. Boeing instead started talking about the Sonic Cruiser. After a lot of money and time was spent they realised that the Sonic Cruiser was not going anywhere and finally settled on the super efficient 7E7 Dreamliner ( which is a shame because if the sonic cruiser had gone ahead then perhaps it could have acted as a catalyst for more research into a viable supersonic variant). 30 years on since Concorde and we still have no acceptable solution to the boom problem.

I can see Boeing's point and their argument that the 7e7 is something that will be popular with airlines and point to point travel is what people really want instead of the hub and spoke view from Airbus. Hub and Spoke is basically where big planes like the 747 / 380 fly to major airports like Heathrow (the hub) and then passengers take connecting flights to smaller destinations (Spokes). Boeing say people want to fly direct from A to B (often smaller airports) without having to change flights etc therefore a long range, super efficient airliner is whats needed i.e the 7E7.

I think they are both right there is demand for both types of planes. Note that as soon as Boeing started talking about the 7e7 lots of airlines showed immediate interest. However Airbus appeared on the scene yet again and annouced to the world that just because they are building the 380 doesnt mean they have stopped building other planes and launched the A350 few weeks ago which will be a direct competitor to the 7e7. I assume that as soon as Airbus announced the A350 lot of airlines that showed interest at the 7e7 probably took a small step back from Boeing and decided to wait and see what Airbus will do with the 350 before they commit to the 7e7. Even if the 7E7 proves to be the superior aircraft the A350 will still take a bite out of the 7E7 pie.

Excuse my crude language but to me it looks like Airbus have got Boeing by the balls right now and are squeezing real hard.

For the first time in the history of the two companies it is Boeing that does not have an answer to a product from Airbus. It is a fascinating battle and the victors I am sure will be the airlines and passengers as the two titans compete to build better and more efficient products.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The A380 : Revolutionary?

A friend recently asked me if I thought the A380 was a revolutionary aircraft. Here is my response.

When I think of planes that revolutionized air travel I think of the Comet ( first jet airliner), 707 (first jet airliner that didnt crash every week), 747 (first jet airliner that didnt crash every week AND could carry lots of people and really brought air travel to the masses) and the Concorde (which transferred high altitude supersonic flight from the once exclusive realm of air force test pilots to the equally exclusive (probably also despised) realm of fat overpaid investment bankers and celebs)

Each of those planes in their own way did make a big difference to air travel as they were unlike any of their predecessors and did change the face of commercial aviation.

The 380 is no doubt a step forward but it is not revolutionary. The 380 brings several improvements in technology like new and lighter materials, more efficient and quieter engines, advanced cockpit, easier to maintain etc etc but its not a giant step forward.

The media and some airline bosses have been talking about gyms, casinos, fast food restaurants, showers, shops etc etc. Wind back to the time the 747 was launched and you will find exacty the same headlines. How many 747s today have the above features?? There is only one person in the world who has control over these sort of things and that is the airline accountant. Its as many bums on as many seats as possible that brings in the money and not showers and shops.

However I am sure that some airlines will use the extra space to introduce some of the above on the 380 purely to act as a product differentiator in the market place. I am sure that people like Branson will do something different especially because he already has bars on his 747s.

Unfortunately I think that most of the new features that may appear will be for first and business passengers only and the masses will continue to suffer for long hours in small seats.

This plane does not bring the two things that I want to see in future airliners : Speed (we are stilll flying at about the same speed as the early passenger jets) and Comfort for economy passengers (this is up to airlines and not the manufacturers so cant blame boeing or airbus). Internal seat config is decided by airlines alone.

The big airlines will use it to replace their ageing 747-400 fleets with revamped first/business sections with perhaps few unique interior features like bars, small duty free shop etc. However for economy passengers (kindly referred to as self loading freight in the industry) there wont be a big difference.

I have to mention the 747SR. Some airlines (especially Japs) have very high demand on short haul routes so they use use modified 747s for routes normally flown by smaller planes. Therefore Boeing built a very high capacity single class variant of the 747 purely for short haul routes.

There will be A380 variants and a similar high capacity version with close to 950 all economy seats is a possibility.

A final note about Indian airports. I dont remember reading anything about Indian airports gearing up for it. If anyone knows otherwise then do let me know. However Emirates are ordering close to 40 380s and flights to India will certainly be on the top of their list along with other asian 380 customers. Therefore I assume and hope that Indian airports are already doing something about this.

I would appreciate your comments on my first ever blog : thoughts / criticisms / pure hatred / love / etc etc are all equally welcome :)


Who am I?

This is my first blog. I am an aviation enthusiast and also an aerospace engineer by profession (however just to make it clear from the outset I am not one of those really aeroplane crazy guys who stand for hours at the end of runway photographing planes!).

I like to keep my friends (those outside the aviation world) updated with my regular reports of this fascinating industry (in my view anyway). They suggested I start a blog so others could read my take on the world of aviation and current events as well. I must admit I found the whole blog concept quite silly when I first heard about it.

However they eventually managed to convince me that other people might actually be interested in what I have to say too. hmm.....perhaps it was just a clever attempt to stop me filling up their inbox :)

Anyway so here is my first ever blog. I will pick on the most talked about topic in the world of civil aviation today as my first post. The A380.