Saturday, April 24, 2010

Ideas just waiting to take flight

The aviation sector was thrown into confusion by a volcano with an unpronounceable name. In six days flat, airlines suffered $1.7 billion in losses; 29% of global aviation was affected and seven million passengers were stranded, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The world needs to do better next time. Air travel must change and here’s how, say aviation experts:

EXISTING TECHNOLOGY

Small Planes | Big jets cannot fly through ash at all but charter planes with turbo-propped engines can, to some extent. Small, piston-driven planes such as Cessnas are best if the ash isn’t too dense, says aviation consultant Captain Shakti Lumba. Here’s why. When ash gets sucked into a jet’s engine, it forms a glass coating on the turbines and stops them. It erodes the wings, covers the windshield and interferes with the electronic system. This is suicidal for jets flying at 40,000 feet and 700 km per hour.

But propellers of piston-driven planes are external, says a pilot with a charter company. Their engines behave like those of a car and their air filters eliminate dust, particles, etc. “As most fly at lower altitudes, there is less chance of being hit by an ash cloud,” the pilot says. There are other advantages of using piston-driven planes. They can land at smaller airports. However, the cost of travel rules such flights out for most people. A Milan-Dubai flight on an 11-seater would cost 50,000 euros, says Ankur Bhatia, executive director of the travel conglomerate Bird Group. Compare this to 866 euros on a scheduled flight.

Zeppelins | Imaginative businessmen could see the Zeppelin as an opportunity. These piston-driven airships operated from Germany to North America in the early 20th century. Captain Lumba says they might be one of the answers to the problem of affordable, reasonably weather-proof mass air travel. “They can carry up to 300 passengers, are cheap and green.” A test flight of a Zeppelin on July 2, 2000, travelled 3,600 km — that’s the distance from Srinagar to Kanyakumari.

The downside: They fly slower at a cruising speed of 70 km per hour.

Choppers | Ash sticks to chopper blades too but preventive action can be taken faster, says R K Tyagi, chairman and managing director of Pawan Hans. “We compress-wash the turbine blades to reduce friction and corrosion.” But helicopters can’t be a mass-transit, long-distance solution.

FUTURE INNOVATIONS

Radars | Wing Commander Sanjay Thapar, D-G of the Aero Club of India suggests weather radars that can identify ash. At present, radars only reveal the water content in clouds. “A dry ash cloud would not be visible,” says a jet pilot.
Planes | Could planes be developed to fly higher, on top of ash clouds?
Engines | Can engines be built to ensure ash cannot enter?

NEW SYSTEMS

Alternative Routing | A jet pilot suggests that countries urgently work together to identify volcanic hotspots that could interfere with air routes and then open new, viable routes such as Cairo and Athens as was done this time.

Global Crisis Manager | Kapil Kaul, CEO of Asia Pacific Aviation, who is just back in Delhi after three nightmarish days in ash-grounded Europe, suggests a global crisis management group, that can disseminate information fast and coordinate with stakeholders, including bus services, cabs, rail or ferries.

Kaul had to use multiple modes of transport to travel from the Hague to Amsterdam, on to Frankfurt, Milan, Rome, Doha, Dubai and finally Delhi. He says it was enormously difficult. “I stood four-five hours at railway stations just to get information, trains were so jampacked I travelled standing, Amsterdam cab drivers were charging a whopping 5,000 euros to London and airline websites and call centres gave no information.”

Single Sky | The European Commission now says the Single European Sky concept should be implemented rightaway. On May 4, this will be discussed at a Europe Transport Council meeting. Kaul says airline alliances such as Star and SkyTeam should help ensure seamless travel.

He says airspace should be kept open in emergencies and blanket closure was an over-reaction. “The US would have handled it better. Test flights by KLM and Lufthansa did not bear out this knee-jerk reaction and their results should be studied carefully.”

The IATA suggests that a crisis should mean immediate relaxation of airport slot rules and lifting restrictions on night flights. Its director-general Giovanni Bisignani says, “This crisis is an act of God — completely beyond the control of airlines. But the European Commission should find ways to ease passenger burden.”

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