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The Future of Flight August 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I thoroughly enjoy travel.  Connecting with other regions and cultures only serves to educate me on just how much we all have in common.  Whether the city is a thousand years old (Tallinn) or a couple hundred years old (Helsinki), I marvel at everything and everyone.

As a flight aficionado, I don’t even mind getting there.  I’ve always been fascinated by aviation, and actually enjoy getting on a commercial airline to go somewhere distant.

However, this article from The Conversation, via Quartz, is right about one thing.  Air travel as we know it is unsustainable from an environmental point of view.  We are still burning massive amounts of petrocarbons to get relatively few people from one place to another.  Prominent people from Meghan Markle to Greta Thunberg are being shamed for their jet travel (unjustly, in part because so many more egregious cases abound; remember when GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt had a second corporate jet follow him around the world, on the off chance that the first one broke down somewhere?).

Here are the four solutions proposed, along with my semi-educated take on them.

  1. Limit and meter air travel by individuals. I presume that this will be accompanied by ways to buy flight credits for those with the need to travel more.  I also presume that politicians will exempt themselves.  Won’t work, of course.  It would put dozens of carriers and air manufacturers out of business with far less air travel.  It would hurt other businesses who would not be able to travel to support their business goals.  Further, this would lead back to air travel being a privilege for the wealthy, rather than a right of all.  It’s funny that most solutions proposed by elitists serve to benefit them at the expense of others.This alternative also included high-speed trains as a way to replace air travel.  It works to some extent in Europe and Japan.  However, both have a smaller land area and denser population (Japan especially), and that makes a huge difference.  Even in the dense Northeast, the Acela beyond short distances is problematic.  New York to California will take 2-3 days.  I’ve even tried to work trains into my conference travels, and they simply take too long to work.
  2. Electric-powered aircraft. This one seems intriguing; I used to think torque was a problem in electric motors, until I rode in a Tesla.  But the overwhelming problem here remains weight, particularly battery weight.  Weight is a consideration in cars; it is /the/ consideration in aircraft.  The first electric aircraft may well be hybrids, like cars, but that doesn’t overcome the weight issues.  While there may be opportunities here, they are not right around the corner.In 1988 Hilbert Schenck wrote a science fiction story of a nuclear-powered bomber that heated water to steam to turn engine turbines.  While steam is extremely powerful, it lacks torque, leading to the building of a 20-mile runway in northern Maine (think Loring AFB run amok).  The bomber only got off the ground because of clever manipulations by the command pilot.  And, of course, we can’t go building 20-mile runways all over the place.  And I’m not sure how that solution would work with jet engines.
  3. Bring back the zeppelin. Once again, this is creating a solution by the elite for the elite.  Those who can afford to take three or four days to cross the Atlantic are welcome to it.  But that won’t solve the pollution problem, because most people don’t have unlimited leisure time.
  4. Orbital maglev trains. As near as I can tell from the description, kind of a Jacob’s Ladder with frictionless acceleration and velocity at about 80km above the planet’s surface.  But there’s been no actual R&D here, so it is very much pie in the sky, at least for decades.

I applaud ways to consider less-unfriendly alternatives to enable travel, but these are pretty much off the charts.  More efficient engines, lighter (composite) aircraft, and better ATC aircraft routings are things we can do today to ease climate change, rather than 50 or 100 years from now.

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