The airline industry has always been very up-front in demanding the highest standards in passenger safety and cutting-edge technologies. Due to newer norms defined by the FAA and other governing agencies, the aviation industry’s task looks more arduous than ever before. For instance, on Dec 8, 2009, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which represents airlines, airports, air navigation service providers and manufacturers, collectively decided to reduce the aviation industry’s carbon emissions by 50% by 2020. This is far beyond the scope of present day technologies. Clearly, the time has come for both aviation companies as well as aircraft manufacturers to jointly find new ways to address emerging problems.
Commercial airliners have always looked at military aviation technologies to seek a solution for their own problems. The concept of air-to-air refueling used in the military space, especially during wars as it is one of the best ways to save on fuel while flying long distances. In the preliminary study, it was revealed that air-to-air refueling could help reduce the fuel consumption by as much as 23%. The ongoing research is being completed to provide better air refueling systems for commercial aerospace without affecting passenger comfort with controlled turbulence measures. Also, if such a model is to be achieved, it will open the doors for on-the-fly boarding and de-boarding systems for long distance flights.
The scheme of long distance travel imposes a major challenge to aircraft manufacturers. The engine needs to be durable and highly efficient. Also the plane would need to store more fuel to support such systems, which again would require larger engines, and airframes. The current engine cannot support such a system.
Currently, feasibility plans are underway to propel commercial aircraft using nuclear engines. Certainly, the efficiency in this case improves significantly while the engine supports long distance travel in space and time. Powered by nuclear fusion, a cruiser could stay airborne for months which means the preceding concern on fuel management can be addressed more effectively. Working along the same lines, Lockheed Martin announced on October 2014 that they will be readying a prototype fusion reactor ready within five years and a working production engine within ten.
We could actually be having flights that can stay airborne for months and efficient air refuelling systems to support their long duration flights. There would have to be a pick-and-drop facility for passengers while airborne. The system will be akin to metros, where the flights keep traveling from one station to another as people board and de-board at different metro stations. Floating metros, even though they sound fantastical, is not a distant scenario in commercial aviation. Maybe in the near future, we can have long flights which would travel from place to place right through the Berlin – Prague – London – Paris – Madrid – Barcelona route, with passengers hopping on and off at different stations in the air. This surreal journey might soon be realized in reality!