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Airline Industry’s Big Ideas Aim to Ensure Its Survival

  • Sunday, 11th May 2003
  • Reading time: about 6 minutes

Despite the enormous setbacks following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the aviation industry has ambitious plans — out of necessity.

If aviation is to prosper, it must ensure that flying remains the most efficient and convenient form of travel. The airline industry is employing whiz-bang technologies to streamline the security process, build highly automated airliners and modernize air traffic control.

The Japanese government hopes to put into service by 2012 a new-generation supersonic transport, bigger and faster than the Concorde.

On a smaller scale, Moller International, a California company, has developed a flying car with four propellers, one at each corner, capable of whisking around town at 350 mph.

That intrigues Kathy Shackman, a real estate worker from Delray Beach, Fla., “because traffic in this part of the country is wicked. Certain times of year you can’t get anywhere.”

For now, however, the aviation industry’s challenge is simply to survive. Major U.S. air carriers lost more than $10 billion in 2002, laid off more than 82,000 workers and mothballed more than 550 airliners. The airlines probably will face another $9 billion loss this year, and layoffs will continue.

“What’s happened is there is general fright on the part of passengers based on all the unstable news, such as Iraq,” said aviation consultant Stuart Klaskin. “It creates this frightened economy. People say, I’m not buying, I’m not selling, I’m not traveling.”

Some analysts say the next five years will determine which carriers survive. Virtually all the major airlines are taking drastic steps to slim down and stay afloat. They have cut service levels, delayed the purchase of big planes and relied more on regional airline connections — all to compete with low-fare carriers.

“The major carriers’ product has really descended to the point there’s virtually no difference between them and the low-cost carrier experience,” Klaskin said.

Passenger boom likely

Just the same, by 2010, the agency forecasts almost 1 billion passengers will board U.S. airliners, up from 665 million in 2002.

If that is the case, aviation can’t afford to stand pat, said Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter. She said that without adequate planning, future passengers would face jammed airports.

“In the next 20 years, we really do see a need for fundamental improvements in the aviation infrastructure,” she said.

Airbus A380 to be huge

Nowhere is the industry’s determination to move forward more evident than in the Airbus A380, which will become the largest commercial passenger aircraft when it debuts in 2006.

The four-engine colossus will have two full passenger decks, able to fit 840 seats in a one-class configuration, although most airlines are expected to install first- and business-class accommodations and limit passengers to about 555.

A third, lower deck will be used for cargo and amenity areas, such as retail stores, a spa, a casino, a children’s entertainment center or a fast-food franchise. Such features probably will make the A380 popular for very long trips, such as to China or Japan.

The plane will weigh 595 tons, or nearly 200 tons more than the biggest 747.

Why build a plane so huge?

Within two decades, airports will reach their maximum capacities in takeoffs and landings, and the only way to increase passenger numbers will be with more seats per plane.

“One of the driving forces behind development of this airplane was recognition of the fact that over the next 15 years, global air traffic is expected to double, and in 20 years, it is expected to triple,” said David Venz, vice president of communications for Airbus North America, which is based in Herndon, Va.

Airbus already has about 95 firm orders for the A380. It is expected to start regular service to the United States within four years at major hub airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Miami.

New-generation SST

Someday, NASA and Boeing might team up to build a new-generation supersonic transport, or SST, quiet enough to permit domestic flights over land.

NASA, meanwhile, is developing technology that would allow a plane’s wings to change shape for various phases of flight to optimize speed. Because it will take decades to develop the necessary composite materials, the agency doesn’t expect to see such planes flying until about 2050.

In the next decade, the Japanese government plans to develop an SST aimed at mainstream passengers. Under a $200 million development program, the aircraft would cruise at 1,500 mph and ascend as high as 59,000 feet.

It would seat about 300 passengers, about three times as many as the old-fashioned SST. And, Japanese officials hope that it, too, would be as quiet as the new-generation jetliners.

Jet-propelled taxicabs

Fast little planes are another wave of the future. Companies already are building jets with as few as four passenger seats; they are designed to fly from one small airfield to another, allowing travelers taking shorter domestic flights to avoid the hassles of big airports.

Under a five-year, $69 million program, NASA is promoting development of thousands of these jet-propelled taxicabs to ease the overburdened airline hub system and take advantage of about 5,000 smaller, quieter airports.

“I think you’ll see a trend in domestic travel toward smaller aircraft,” Klaskin said.

While many air taxi companies already fly corporate jets into small airports, the price is generally hundreds of dollars more than an airline ticket.

NASA developed the concept of a Small Aircraft Transportation System because one of its main functions is to improve aviation safety and unravel knots in the airspace network.

Under the NASA program, small-jet fares would equal the cost of a coach seat on a jetliner.

Although the little jets are slower than conventional airliners, they could shave hours off the total time in transit because they would allow passengers to bypass such big-airport hassles as check-in, security, parking and baggage claim. That probably would make the tiny jets the preferred choice of business travelers, who might need to get to three or four cities in one day.

The little jets represent a technological advance, largely because their tiny engines would propel the aircraft to 400 mph yet would be light enough to keep a plane’s overall weight about the same as that of a sport-utility vehicle, experts said.

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