Airbus has demonstrated how flying across the Atlantic in formation can save a good amount of fuel, though I question how useful this will be in the real world…
Airbus A350s cross the Atlantic in formation
The entire aviation industry is looking for ways to reduce its environmental impact, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because reducing fuel burn also saves money. Along those lines, Airbus performed a fascinating demonstration flight across the Atlantic yesterday.
Specifically, on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, two Airbus A350 test aircraft crossed the Atlantic in formation, flying from Toulouse, France, to Montreal, Canada. Over the course of the flight, the two aircraft saved over six tons of CO2 emissions, which is the equivalent of over 5% fuel savings for this flight. That’s right, fuel burn was reduced by over 5% by flying in formation.
How is that possible? Well, Airbus has developed flight control systems that position the “follower” aircraft in the wake updraft of the “leader” aircraft, allowing the aircraft in the back to reduce engine thrust, and thereby reduce fuel consumption. It’s the same concept as how large migrating birds fly together in a distinct V-shaped formation.
The next step is to get support for this concept from authorities, so that this new operational concept can be certified, and enable airlines to reduce fuel burn.
Here’s how Sabine Klauke, Airbus’ Chief Technical Officer, described this flight:
“This demonstration flight is a concrete example of our commitment to making our decarbonisation roadmap a reality. It also speaks to how collaboration across the industry will be key to making this happen. We have received a strong level of support for this project from our airline and air traffic partners, plus regulators. The opportunity to get this deployed for passenger aircraft around the middle of this decade is very promising. Imagine the potential if fello’fly was deployed across the industry!”
This is awesome, but is it practical?
First and foremost, this is a ridiculously cool concept. Reducing fuel burn by over 5% is significant, and I’m sure that this could all be done in a safe manner with the right technology being used.
My bigger concern with this becoming a reality is the logistics:
- Presumably this only works if the same type of aircraft are crossing the ocean, since different planes have different cruising speeds, and presumably having similar systems would also help
- Is the concept here that this would apply for planes traveling between the same origin and destination at the same time, or rather that planes could be flying to totally different destinations, but just cross the main portion of the Atlantic around the same time?
- Unless the two airplanes belong to the same airline, how would the cost savings be split, given that one plane is essentially saving the other plane fuel?
- Airlines aren’t allowed to coordinate schedules without anti-trust immunity, so logistically how would this be coordinated? Would this be a case where air traffic controllers see if there are two planes close enough to one another for this to make sense, or to what extent would it be planned in advance?
Airbus performed an awesome demonstrator flight with two A350s. The planes crossed the Atlantic, with one aircraft being in the other aircraft’s wake, and this led to considerable fuel savings. It’s the same concept as birds flying in formation, as this allowed the plane in the rear to reduce its thrust, thanks to the wake updraft.
This is a great concept, though I’m skeptical of the real world uses here, based on the logistics involved.
What do you make of this Airbus formation flying concept, and do you think we could ever see this implemented on a widespread basis?