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The Future of Airports: Airside and Airspace Compatibility (Topic No. 6)

08 June 2020 Airport of the Future
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The Airport Think Tank of ENAC Alumni published last month the global analysis of The Future of Airports. Each week, discover a new focus on one of the 11 topics of this research initiative.

The fleet of aircraft in the field and in the air will become more diverse over the coming decades.  The lower airspace might get busier in the coming 5 to 10 years. Urban and Rural (or Regional) Air Mobility (UAM/RAM) promises a new era of mobility with new vehicles that should be safer, cheaper, quieter and greener than today’s helicopters. Upon getting clearance from the regulators, they might enable an increase in capacity on intra- and perhaps inter-urban trips that are much needed in dense metropolitan areas with acute congestion issues. Urban Air Mobility will be provided by electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) vehicles of various sizes moving 2 to 6 passengers or light freight. Services will include air taxi by manned electric helicopters and parcel deliveries by small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS).

High-speed rotorcraft as tiltrotor or helicopters equipped with propulsive engines are at the horizon as well and will complete the VTOL offer with higher flight performances. Although they might occupy a smaller portion of the civilian rotorcraft market and will have higher operating costs than eVTOL vehicles, they could be of interest for applications where speed is a key factor for the success of the mission such as medical air transportation, law enforcement, some air taxis, and offshore services.

Electric aircraft is a broad category of aerial vehicles that include fixed-wing aircraft powered by electric engines. Several prototypes have been flying and the first commuter aircraft retrofitted with an electric engine flew in December 2019. Electric aircraft have promising applications for general aviation, commuter services and regional aviation. It might become a commercial reality during the 2020 decade. The feasibility of powering larger commercial aircraft with electric engines is not yet clearly established. Instead, larger aircraft might have hybrid propulsion systems electrically assisted during the cruise for lowering the consumption.

Older and smaller single-aisle aircraft are being replaced by jets of more advanced design such as the Airbus A220, Embraer E-Jet E2, and Mitsubishi SpaceJet. These single-aisle aircraft are now being used for international services and open new opportunities for small and medium hub airports. The A321LR and XLR will soon be flying long-haul routes formerly reserved to middle-of-the-market aircraft. These trends mean that terminal facilities and aprons shall be more versatile than before and be compatible with a more diverse fleet.

The termination of the production of the A380-800 announced for 2021 is not the end of the Large Aircraft (LA). The Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8 might still be operating commercial services at the 2040 horizon. The next generation of large and long aircraft is already here with the A350-1000 and 777-9. The growth of the worldwide population, the emergence of new megalopolis with a strong middle class, and the scarcity of airside/airspace capacity make the case for the “jumbo” aircraft.

Supersonic aircraft will likely be back in the air by 2040. Nearly 20 years after the last flight of Concorde, at least 3 projects driven by U.S. start-ups have clean-sheet concepts for small supersonic jets either for commercial service or business aviation. While an entry into service (EIS) before 2025 as announced by these firms seem ambitious, demonstrators from Boom and NASA should be flying as early as 2021. New standards will be needed to regulate the emissions and noise of these aircraft. The comeback of civilian supersonic flight should not hinder the effort made by the industry to reduce the environmental footprint of aviation.

A hypersonic civilian market could emerge at the 2070 horizon. The idea of using hypersonic aircraft, gliders, or rockets for providing very long-range mobility is not new and was first proposed at the end of World War II. The development of new technologies, materials and manufacturing processes could make them available to civil aviation for commercial services or corporate aviation. SpaceX has suggested that its reusable Starship under development could be used for flying intercontinental routes – such as New York City to Shanghai in less than 40 minutes.

What if airlines themselves break between flight operators providing ready aircraft and holding the air operator certificate, and mobility providers developing the commercial offer and selling tickets? These charters of a new genre could both help to leverage growth in booming regions where flight operators have yet to become safer and reintroduce more diversity on mature markets. These flight operators could actually be the aircraft manufacturer themselves – they already train pilots and lease aircraft. Agreements between the parties of these “compound airlines” that could easily be recomposed and adapt to the evolutions of the demand could be facilitated by a new generation of contracts and certificates powered by blockchain technologies.


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