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Transport Blog
03 May 2007
Europeans chase shadows
Patrick Crozier

It’s fun to see the economic lessons of the 1960s being replayed 40 years later.  Way back then you will remember European politicians bet the farm (that was your farm) on speed being the future of air travel.  So, they built Concorde.  Meanwhile, Boeing looked at the numbers and came up with 747.


Now, forty years on, Airbus, Europe’s champion, nothing if not quick to adapt, has bet the farm (that’s…) (probably) on that lumbering giant the A380.  A more apt corporate symbol there has never been.  Meanwhile, Boeing has checked the numbers and worked out that the future lies in fuel efficiency and direct flights to Australia.

Incidentally, in a world where planes and engines are sold separately why all this talk about the 787 being fuel efficient?


  1. Incidentally, in a world where planes and engines are sold separately why all this talk about the 787 being fuel efficient?

    Because fuel efficiency depends on the aerodynamics of the plane as well as the design of the engine.

    A less aerodynamic shape generates more turbulence in the wake, and the more turbulent the flow, the faster energy is dissipated as heat.

    Posted by Andy Wood on  03 May 2007 at 08:13 pm

  2. Well, I am just a little surprised by this.  I thought that we already knew just about all there was to know about aerodynamics and it is not as if this plane looks so vastly different from its predecessors.  Even the 707.

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  03 May 2007 at 10:17 pm

  3. Fuel efficiency also depends on weight; the lighter the airframe (i.e. by using composites instead of metal), the more efficient the aircraft will be.

    But Boeing is also relying on GE and Rolls Royce (I think) to develop more fuel-efficient engines.

    Posted by Chris Lawrence on  04 May 2007 at 12:50 am

  4. Planes don’t have to look vastly different.  It’s in the very small things that the efficiency is made up.  Things like winglets, ratio of cross-section to length, tail shape and size, wing angle…  And we certainly don’t know everything about aerodynamics.  That’s why there are more and more wind tunnels built all the time.  smile

    Posted by Highway on  04 May 2007 at 02:10 am

  5. I thought that we already knew just about all there was to know about aerodynamics…

    If we did, I might have to look for a new job.

    Modelling turbulence is still one of the toughest problems in computational physics.

    Posted by Andy Wood on  04 May 2007 at 11:32 am

  6. Okay, Patrick wins the prize for “Things not to say when two of your co-contributors have Ph.Ds in High Reynolds Number fluid dynamics. (I am assming your Reynolds numbers are high, Andy, although I haven’t discussed it with you in detail).

    I wrote my thesis on high Reynolds number laminar/turbulent transition - that is, just the moment when fluids moving rapidly over a surface stop moving in a nice simple fashion and change into something much more complicated. Actually modelling what happens after that is so complex that we didn’t think of it. The aim of all this was to attempt to figure out how we could prevent or delay the onset of the transition. (If a wing is moving through the air and it stirs up lots of air so that the air is moving around in a highly turbulent way, then that requires a lot of energy and the aircraft becomes much less fuel efficient).

    Although some aircraft types have been in production for decades (the 737 since the mid 1960s), these have been redesigned with completely new wings at least a couple of times. Some of this is due to the fact that aircraft designers tend to start out with smaller shorter range variants and when you increase the range or the length of the aircraft, you will need a larger wing. (A longer range aircraft means more fuel which must be carried, meaning the aircraft is heavier at takeoff, meaning you need more lift, meaning you need a bigger wing. It isn’t as simple as just putting in more fuel tanks). At least as much of this is that wing technology has advanced a lot in that time. Fuselage technology, not so much.

    The 787’s redesign is primarily about lighter and stronger materials though. If you lighten the structure and produce smaller or more slender components with the same or greater strength, the way everything relates to everything else changes, and you end up with an aircraft that looks different, even without new changes in the understanding of aerodynamics.

    In about 1985, Airbus became fixated on the idea that they were number 2 because Boeing had the biggest aircraft and was able to use their monopoly position on the 747 to win a lot of accounts that involved other aircraft as well. Therefore they became fixated on what became the A380. They spent the next 15 years lobbying politicians to allow them to build it. By the time they succeeded it was an outdated design and technology had moved on. I wrote a long article about this on Samizdata here

    Posted by Michael Jennings on  04 May 2007 at 05:32 pm

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