When more than 170 nations signed the Paris climate agreement in New York last week, aviation emissions were not included. Instead, the world’s airlines have been allowed more time to show that they really do get climate change and acknowledge their responsibility to do something about it.
In the case of the major U.S. airlines, that could take a long time. At a time when NASA is proposing a spectacular new generation of ultra-green jets, the airlines couldn’t be less interested.
Amazingly, two of them, United and Delta, are opening new routes across the Atlantic this summer using some of the oldest airplanes in the sky—jets designed in the 1970s when green technology was not even in the language.
Not only that, but Delta is actually buying a batch more of old airplanes to add to its fleet—reversing the customary practice of selling off older airplanes as new ones are added.
Why would they do this? After all, these are the most inefficient airplanes to operate. They guzzle gas, they need a lot more maintenance, they are prone to flight delays caused by maintenance issues, and their levels of cabin comfort are no match for the new generation jets.
But to airline number crunchers one number has suddenly gone from malign to benign: the price of gas.
When gas prices were breaking the $150 a barrel barrier, the airlines suddenly got religion on the need to clean up their act. Even well before the surge in gas prices, advances in airplane and jet engine design were beginning to deliver significant gains in efficiency: the gas consumption of the generation of jets produced since 2006 is as much as 20 percent better than the previous generation.
But with the oil price now bouncing between $35 and $45 a barrel and energy analysts saying it is unlikely to break $60 in the foreseeable future some airlines are less eager to take on the commitment in capital and debt servicing involved in buying new airplanes that can cost up to $300 million each when a serviceable used airplane can be had for as little as $14 million.
The paradox of old airplanes flying new routes showed up in an analysis of transatlantic traffic prepared by Craig Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft projects, a New York-based consultancy.
Jenks reports that of eleven new transatlantic flights being operated this summer by U.S. airlines only one, an American Airlines flight from New York to London, will use a relatively modern jet, the Boeing 777. On the other 10 flights, by United and Delta, passengers will be boarding the oldest airplanes in their fleets, Boeing 757s and 767s.
In contrast, European airlines are introducing 35 new transatlantic flights, and only four of those flights will be using airplanes of the same vintage as the U.S. carriers: three by Icelandair, on routes from Reykjavik to the U.S. and one by a German budget airline. The rest are flying mostly modern Airbus models—and two, Norwegian and British Airways, are using one of the most efficient airplanes in the sky, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Jenks agrees that lower gas prices have figured in the reasons for using older airplanes but he sees other influences at work.
“A good part of the business case is that the U.S. carriers prefer to start new transatlantic routes with daily frequency,” he told The Daily Beast. “It just so happens that there is no currently manufactured airplane small enough for some of those missions.”
And this goes to the heart of the paradox: the only perfect fit in size for some transatlantic routes is an airplane that Boeing stopped producing in 2004, the Boeing 757. (Right now the 757’s most conspicuous role is as Donald Trump’s version of Air Force One, often used not just as transport but as a prop.)
The 757 hits a sweet spot because it’s the only single-aisle airplane that can carry around 250 passengers on routes as long as 3,900 miles, a comfortable margin for many transatlantic flights. Neither Boeing nor Airbus has a current airplane with that combination. (Both are pondering whether to produce one.)
When the 757 was designed in the late 1970s (along with the larger wide-body 767) it improved fuel efficiency over its predecessor by 80 percent by using the first generation of “big fan” engines. But what was then hailed as new technology (cockpit displays using cathode-ray tubes instead of dials, for example) is definitely now a curiosity from the analog age.
For passengers the airplane’s age is inescapable.
Its most apparent downside is that the cabin’s internal dimensions are essentially the same as those of Boeing’s first intercontinental jet, the 707, designed in the 1950s. That means enduring (despite some trompe l’oeil tricks with upgraded fittings) tight six-abreast seating in coach for flights lasting eight hours or more and relatively primitive air conditioning, climate control and sound insulation. (These drawbacks are not so apparent for Trump who furnished his 757 in a style that seems to combine boardroom with upscale bordello.)
Delta, it seems can’t get enough 757s. It already has the largest fleet of them, well over 100, and has recently bought more from Shanghai Airlines (Delta was probably able to get a significant discount on the quoted market price of $14 million per airplane). Although these were some of the last 757s built they are still, from the get go, more than 12 years old and heavily used. (United have also bought some newer used Airbuses from China that will be used on U.S. domestic routes.)
However, says Jenks, “Even with much higher maintenance costs it makes sense to operate this older equipment. Safety and maintenance are key issues, but these are very tightly regulated.”
Whatever the business case, flying more and more old gas guzzlers is not what environmental activists were looking for from the aviation industry.
The United Nations body that oversees the world’s airlines, the International Civil Aviation Organization, has proposed new standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to take effect in four years, but they fall below standards already met by the latest generation of airliners like the two newest wide-body jets, the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, and the most advanced models of single-aisle jets liked the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320.
The airline industry points out that aviation is responsible for only 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and that between 2004 and 2012 the level fell by more than 24 percent. Aviation is now approaching rail as the most energy efficient transportation.
But that sunny picture ignores two things: improvements in efficiency need to continue at least the same pace simply to keep up with the growth of traffic—and the particular way that airplanes affect the planet is unique and harmful. The emissions of an airplane at cruise occur in the climatic sensitive upper troposphere and lower stratosphere. The effects on climate are also felt at large distances from where they are released.
For commercial aviation to truly clean up its act a quantum leap in technology is needed.
In fact, the outline of the virtuous airliner of the future is already known, and it bears little relationship to the airliners of today.
A six-year program by NASA has demonstrated that the most efficient aerodynamic form is a total departure from the tube-and-wings common to all jets since the 1950s. It’s called a hybrid wing body, HBW. There is no clear distinction between the wing and the body: the conventional fuselage is subsumed within a broad, stingray like body tapering to a sharp nose. Vestigial wings rake back to give the whole the appearance of a stealth bomber. The engines are clustered above the rear of the body, not hung on the wings.
NASA scientists claim that a large jet in this form would consume nearly 50 percent less fuel and cut emissions by nearly 80 percent—setting a standard so far beyond what any conventional jet could achieve that it seems a no-brainer for the airline industry.
Indeed, at a conference in January NASA engineers said that if this next generation of “super green” technologies were to be adopted, combining aerodynamic innovation and far cleaner engines, the operational savings to the airlines between the years 2025 to 2050 could be as much as $255 billion.
There is just one problem. These guys appear to be smoking something that removes reality from their vision.
I have been tracking the evolution of the hybrid wing body for more than a decade. I’ve talked to engineers who designed and built test models. And there is no way around an awkward and sobering truth: the most efficient shape radically alters the experience for passengers. No longer constrained by the limits of the fuselage tube, the cabin widens out and becomes more like an auditorium. On the largest jets there would be so many seats in each row that they would require not two aisles but three or four.
Also, a somewhat important detail: nobody has figured out where to put windows—or whether there should be windows at all. You could simply look at a screen and see the outside sky digitally rendered. The whole cabin experience could become like virtual reality—physically felt but optically controlled.
When I discussed this vision with some hard-nosed engineers at the airplane companies, they acknowledged that the gains in efficiency were probably attainable but they thought the job of selling such an extreme change to both the airlines and passengers would prove troublesome.
They raised other practical issues: how to evacuate passengers from such a wide cabin in an emergency and the loading and handling of the airplane at gates.
And there is an even larger caveat: no airline is prepared to be the guinea pig for an airplane (and engines) embracing so many new technologies.
There are two ways to solve this: for NASA and the industry to jointly fund prototypes that would test all the characteristics and systems before the FAA certified them as safe—or for the military to act as the guinea pig. Boeing has been exploring the possibility of producing the first HWB as an all-cargo military airlifter—the shape would be ideal for carrying vehicles and tanks.
It’s sad to reflect that U.S. airlines were once strong agents of innovation. They were proactive in the developments that brought the jet age. American Airlines, United, Delta and the long-since departed Pan Am and TWA all had engineers breathing down the necks of the planemakers like Boeing, and the new jets were better for it.
No longer. When Boeing launched the game-changing 787 Dreamliner it was two Japanese airlines that provided the orders to get the program off the ground. Although nearly 40 airlines around the world now fly 787s, Delta won’t be introducing it to any of its routes until 2020.
Delta has one of the oldest fleets among American carriers. The average age of its jets is more than 16 years. But even that number looks better than the reality, which is that it is still flying a lot of single-aisle MD 88s that are as much as 27 years old with some of the dirtiest engines in the sky, and twin-aisle Boeing 767s as old as 26 years.
But this week Delta announced that it will be the first U.S. airline to fly the Canadian-built Bombardier C Series, with an initial order for 75 of the jets using new generation Pratt & Whitney engines that are far cleaner and quieter and at least 20 percent more fuel efficient. These jets will begin arriving in 2018 for use on longer domestic routes. (Developing the C Series has put Bombardier deep into the red and it was desperate to get the Delta deal, selling the jets at a steep discount.)
For the moment, though, U.S. airline chiefs spend a lot more time worrying about quarterly earnings and fielding aggressive calls from Wall Street analysts about the returns being produced for shareholders than they do about the way their airplanes continue to leave trails of nitrogen oxide across the heavens. There’s been a quiet and casual reversal of the commitment to clean up the skies. The real advances made with the latest generation of jets are being undermined by airlines that are bringing back airplanes that belong in the junkyard.