Collective effort needed to tackle aviation's challenges
18 June 2014, 4:00 p.m. EDT
by Lawrence Garrett, AIAA web editor
The issues and challenges facing today’s aviation industry can’t be solved “just by one company, by one country,” said Axel Krein, senior vice president, research and technology, Airbus, during Tuesday evening’s William Littlewood Memorial Lecture. They can “be solved only together,” he said, adding that this week’s AIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition is an excellent opportunity to bring industry members together for the purpose of “exchanging and defining solutions for tomorrow.”
Krein touched upon some of the current challenges facing Airbus and the aviation industry, which he said are “not unique to Airbus,” and how his company is addressing them. To illustrate the enormous amount of air traffic in the air globally on any given day, Krein displayed a “day-in-aviation” map. It showed that there are approximately 100,000 flights in the air worldwide in any 24-hour period, with North America seeing the most traffic at 35 percent, followed by Europe and Asia at 25 percent each, then Latin America at 10 percent, with Africa and Oceana drawing only about 5 percent.
“It’s interesting to see which parts of the world” have the least traffic, said Krein, adding that those are the places where Airbus would like to bring its aircraft. “We would like to see these parts [of the world] also enjoy[ing] the pleasure of air travel and aviation,” he said.
In terms of market prospects, aviation “is a growth industry” and thus presents a unique opportunity for all involved, Krein said, calling it “the business of tomorrow.” He noted that air traffic has been doubling every 15 years – and is expected to double again in the next 15. It’s not only Airbus that is predicting this, Krein added, it’s just about everyone else in the industry as well. Further laying out the challenges ahead, Krein stated that roughly 3 billion people flew in 2013, and that “in 2032 it is predicted there will be 7 billion people flying.”
Krein shared Airbus’ technology overview and discussed future trends and roadmaps. He said he sees potential for around 30,000 new aircraft deliveries by 2032, adding that other predictions are “very similar independently of who you ask.” According to Krein, assuming all of these new aircraft are in the air by 2030, it would mean a doubling of the current number of annual flights from 100,000 to 200,000. Krein asked, “Can the aviation system cope with such growth?” Answering part of his own question, he said, “We don’t find enough pilots in the world, and they can’t be trained fast enough.” Krein was adamant that industry must find solutions to these challenges, saying “the whole chain needs to be optimized,” and industry “need[s] to work together.”
Among the diverse challenges presented by customers, Krein listed the following: Flying more economically, flying more safely and simply (reducing door-to-door time, for example); environmental targets (flying green, reducing CO2 footprint and lowering noise); and increased competition, with emerging contenders in the plus-100 seat market. While trying to maintain Airbus’ current market share in the face of growing challenges and competition, Krein said, “The market share in the future cannot be predicted, but [Airbus is] focused on keeping it at 50 percent.”
Krein described Airbus’ technology progression through its aircraft manufacturing history, from its first A300 in 1974 all the way to the current A350, which he said is “in the last phases of flight test.” The improved aerodynamics, combined with the low weight of the plane’s airframe – which is now 50 percent composite, he said – translates into a 25 percent fuel savings. Krein said the plane’s interior has a “superb cabin with the widest cross-section in the industry.” He said Airbus anticipates certification in the coming months, with the plane set to enter service by the end of the year.
Future areas of focus, said Krein, include improving derivatives (cost, performance, lead time); developing new technologies such as counter-rotating open rotor technology; laminar flow wings; ground vibration tests; and additive layer manufacturing, which he said “reduces needed material 90 percent, and reduces weight and cost 30 percent.”
During the past 20 years, said Krein, the company has increased its production rate “by about a factor of 12,” and they are now seeing robots and humans interacting with each other in the same workspace. “We are going to see a completely new way of designing aircraft” to keep production affordable, he predicted.
Krein briefly touched on Europe’s equivalent of NextGen, called SESAR, while showing a video on coping with air traffic growth. A joint program called initial-4D trajectory management is expected to help air travel become even more predictable in the future, by connecting aircraft and ground systems to optimize the aircraft trajectory in three dimensions plus time.
Krein offered a glimpse into the longer term future of aviation with a video that asked theoretical questions, including: Will aircraft fly on solar power? Will future aircraft have artificial intelligence that enables them to change shapes? Will we be able to reach our destination within three hours no matter what the distance? Krein said he’s not sure exactly what the future will look like, but Airbus definitely “wants to be part of it.” The outlook for aviation, he said, “should excite younger people about what our industry is all about, and what we might be doing in the future.”
Return to AVIATION 2014 Headlines >