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Why bigger may not be better

Posted 4 June 2020 · Add Comment

The future for air transport? Perhaps a very different format from today’s that will require joined-up thinking from politicians, airports and airlines, suggests Dubai Airports’ CEO, Paul Griffiths. Alan Dron reports.

There seems little doubt that air transport is approaching a tipping point.
The recent groundswell of environmental concern over climate change and the aviation industry’s role in it is making more people question current attitudes to air travel. For its part, the air transport sector is urgently seeking ways to mitigate its carbon emissions.
Dubai Airports’ CEO, Paul Griffiths, believes that many established notions of what makes air transport work need to be looked at afresh. That includes considering how airports operate and what can be done to reduce those emissions, as well as lessening impacts on nearby residents.
On airliners, Griffiths said it has become clear that the way forward is with smaller, twin-engined types, rather than the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380. This was despite the fact that “The A380 has been the lifeline of growth in Dubai… DXB is unique in having the throughput to support that aircraft.
“But it’s the last of the line, rather than the first of the next. It’s like more horses on the carriage rather than Henry Ford’s Model T.
“Another massive change is the sensitivity around the ecological impact of the industry and its growth.”
The aviation industry has moved towards addressing environmental concerns through measures, such as making aircraft lighter (thus burning less fuel), and making more efficient use of airspace and researching and adopting biofuels.
However, scaling up production of biofuels remained frustratingly slow and progress in reducing the amount of emissions “is painfully incremental, rather than breakthrough”.
That progress was likely to remain incremental, he said, as battery technology – deemed essential for hybrid or all-electric airliners – had improved only gradually over the past 100 years. Aviation kerosene was destined to be with us for many years to come. “The calorific density of hydrocarbons – the amount of power that can be extracted from a given amount of fuel – is still unparalleled.”
Moving to ground infrastructure, Griffiths – speaking to the UK Aviation Club in London – noted that “Ultimately, an airport’s success is defined by the ease of access it provides for the catchment area. If it’s too difficult to build or expand airports, should we be looking at airport capacity through a different lens?”
Rapidly approaching advances in ground and local air transportation could enable a country to make far better use of its transport infrastructure, he said.
That could mean spreading passenger demand across a larger number of airports, rather than having everyone converge on a small number of congested sites. He suggested that technology could fairly soon allow these options – for example, a passenger could book an autonomous-drive ‘sleeping pod’ that could drive him or her through the night to a less-congested airport.
Alternatively, urban air mobility vehicles could, within a few years, fulfil the same function by being able to fly two or three passengers up to 100 miles (160km) at 125mph (200km/h).

“There is a huge amount of concern about the safety of autonomous vehicles, but it’s nonsense. It’s not the vehicles that are the problem, it’s the humans.
“In the US, where they are most used, [hybrid vehicle manufacturer] Tesla reports cite one accident for every 3.34 million miles with the autopilot engaged. By comparison, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent data shows that, in the US, there is an automobile crash every 492,000 miles, which is about seven times worse.
“So, I would suggest that the need to build larger and larger airports could be eliminated if we could turn the model on its head, by distributing the demand across a wider geographic area instead of concentrating demand – and the associated noise and environmental impacts – into single highly-congested airports.
“The focus of approach to airport design and development simply must change. It shouldn’t be about how we create more capacity at pinch points but more about how we can use the latent capacity in the entire transport ecosystem and apply this on a global basis.
“Future airports will become intermodal hubs – connecting aviation with high-speed ground-based transport systems.”
That, Griffiths admitted, meant getting politicians to think beyond their usual four-year terms in office to develop long-term intermodal strategies.

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