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Future of flying is over 65 years late

AIRLINE passengers of the future will have to do without window seats and fly in giant ‘batwing’ aircraft as a result of aviation industry proposals to tackle climate change issues.

AIRLINE passengers of the future will have to do without window seats and fly in giant ‘batwing’ aircraft as a result of aviation industry proposals to tackle climate change issues.

Greenhouse gas emissions from flights will continue to increase for at least another 20 years — even under the most optimistic timetable for introducing these new planes.

But last week the industry presented a vision for air travel of the future in which technology eventually solves the problem. The Greener by Design group, which includes Airbus, Rolls-Royce and the Department for Transport, believes that the new airliners will enter passenger service in 2025 and that, by 2055, they will make up a third of the world’s fleet, or more than 10,000 aircraft.

Known as ‘flying wings’, the new futuristic airliners will be based on designs that were produced by Sir Frederick Handley Page in Britain 1961.

The entire fuselage would be turned into one wing, which would create far less drag than a conventional cigar-shaped fuselage. Engines would sit on top, with the wing shielding the noise from the ground.

Passengers would sit in rows of up to 40 seats across. Only a handful of the 500 seats would be next to windows but those passengers lucky enough to get them would have a spectacular forward view. However, the aircraft would have to bank more gently in order to avoid nausea among those people seated nearer the wing-tips, on the ends of rows.

Sir Frederick’s design was considered too expensive and risky by the industry in 1961, and he died the next year, a disappointed man.

But his radical ideas have now been resurrected as the prospect of tough environmental controls and the rising cost of fuel force aircraft manufacturers to think more radically.

Boeing is currently working on designs for a military flying wing that will serve as a troop carrier or tanker. Cranfield University, in Bedfordshire, UK, is producing a scale model for Boeing, which will be used for flight tests.

Airbus is also working on a flying wing design under a four-year, US$30 million research project that is funded by the European Union (EU) and expected to report in 2009.

Professor John Green, chairman of the Greener by Design technology group, said that flying wings would consume only a third of the fuel used by existing aircraft. They will be constructed of toughened plastic, rather than aluminium, to reduce their weight by several tonnes. The whole outer surface would be covered in millions of tiny holes, drilled by laser, to reduce drag by sucking in air as it flows over the wing.

The impact that today’s conventional aircraft would eventually have on the world’s climate would be reduced even further by new changes in the way that international airlines operate.

All airliners will alter their cruising altitude to avoid the conditions that form condensation trails, which many scientists now believe to be more damaging than carbon dioxide emissions because of the way they tend to trap heat in the atmosphere.

Green said that airliners could also reduce the amount of fuel they burn by flying in formation, as jet fighters do. Taken together, these changes would bring total aircraft emissions below their present levels by 2025 — despite the expected number of flights being doubled.

The airline industry hopes that the report, which was presented to officials in London last week, will convince ministers that there is no need to impose taxes on aviation fuel.

But green groups have questioned the industry’s claim that air travel could continue to expand without sacrificing the environment.

Jeff Gazzard, co-ordinator of the Greenskies Alliance, said: “The industry is trying to present a plausible scenario in order to carry on growing as fast as they can.

“But they have yet to offer a plausible timetable for introducing flying wings.They are trying to imagine their way out of the problem with artists’ impressions that are worthy of Walt Disney. The only realistic solution is to fly less.”

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