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airplanes as relevant as horse-drawn carriages

I read something recently on the imminence of $8/gallon gasoline and the projected fate of the airlines (and by extension, the aircraft industry).

In 2003, a mere six years ago, jet fuel made up less than 13% of airlines’ costs. When gas prices reach $4 a gallon, as they did for part of 2008, jet fuel makes up 40% of carriers’ costs. That’s an astounding number. Almost half of airlines’ costs — including the price of planes, ground crews, pilots, insurance, airport fees, maintenance — comes from the hydrocarbons needed to keep these sleek, purring machines aloft. When gas reaches $8, carriers will be throwing down 60% of their operating costs for fuel. That cannot be sustained. The ultimate contraction awaits.

So why aren’t the two(!) remaining aircraft makers making the next generation of aircraft? What do you suppose that would be?

Can you say airship?

When you realize how much of a plane’s fuel load is used just to get it to cruising altitude, short flights become uneconomical, so the article claims. But what if there was a fleet of aircraft that only burned fuel to get from point to point? I suspect the improvements in powerplants of the past 70 years, since the heyday of lighter-than-air travel, will make the airship of tomorrow quite impressive.

The obvious drawback is speed: no lighter-than-air craft is going to travel at 500 mph. So the overnight shipping business may take a hit. And vacations will no longer be what they once were, as far as where one could go for a short break. But on the other hand, the journey itself might become part of the vacation. The only reason the airlines can cram us into those tight quarters is with the promise of short duration. That goes away at 100 kts ;-)

Jul 24, 2009

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