Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, May 4, 2020

Airline transportation after the epidemic. The problem is being solved, but not the way you would have imagined

That's how a hydrogen-powered plane could look like. Honestly, it is not very impressive: it looks more like an Elvis sighting and one may even reasonably doubt that this thing could fly. If it were easy to power planes using hydrogen, someone would be working at real prototypes rather than just these drawings. 

Airlines have been on the edge of collapse for many years and for many good reasons, but the real problem, at the basis of all the others, is the need for fossil fuels. Airplanes are voracious beasts: they consume around 7% of the world's production of fuels and fueling planes represents about 20%-30% of the costs of operating an airline. So far, most companies have survived the vagaries of the oil market, but it should be obvious that crude oil cannot last forever. In addition, there is the problem of the pollution generated by fossil fuels, especially in terms of contributing to global warming. One result is the phenomenon called "flight shame," another headache for airline managers.

So, if you want to keep planes in the air, you need to get rid of the need for fossil fuels. And that turns out to be nearly impossible, at least for the current generation of planes. I already discussed the technical and financial aspects of alternatives to fossil fuels. Hydrogen is a good fuel for rockets, but not for civilian planes, it is a technological and financial nightmare, Biofuels can't help: there is no way that you can step production to levels sufficient to feed the current fleet of civilian planes. Electric planes are a nice idea for small planes, but there is no way that you can build an electric equivalent of a Boeing 747. Wide-body planes are optimized for the fuel they use, kerosene, produced by refining crude oil. And there is just so much that you can do to improve technologies that have already been optimized nearly to death. Spending a lot of money, you can refine and retouch this and that, and make the plane gain maybe a fraction of one percent in performance, but that doesn't eliminate the need for fossil fuels.

So, airlines reacted to the problem by cutting costs as much as possible. That was obtained by having passengers undergo all sorts of humiliations: crowded planes, long waiting times, unreliable flights, impossible schedules, non-existing ground services, horrible on-board food, and more. To that, add the ubiquitous harassment suffered by travelers at the entrance gates of airports. The whole looks more like the treatment inflicted on war prisoners en route for a concentration camp. But passengers seemed to be happy to accept being mistreated in exchange for low price tickets. 

But, eventually, the solution chosen by airlines led them to a no-way-out street: there is a limit to how much you can cut corners. Ryanair even proposed to carry standing passengers on board, but it was nothing more than an advertising stunt. And then there came the coronavirus epidemic dealing a terrible blow to the already strained airlines. Right now, it is hard to see how passenger service can be restarted: people are so scared that they would accept to fly on a plane only if everyone were wearing scuba diving suits equipped with autonomous oxygen tanks. Probably the scare will abate in the coming months, and it is probably possible to introduce some kind of a "health passport" that would allow passengers to sit near each other without fearing to be infected. But, in the meantime, with the industry deeply in the red, you can kiss the rotors of the turbines goodbye.

Nevertheless, as I tend to say, for everything that happens there is a reason for it to happen, and the destiny of the airlines was already written on the wings of their planes. Last year, the demise of the Airbus A380, the flower of the European Aerospace industry, was a death knell for the very concept of wide-body planes. It was known, and the effort of the aerospace industry was already moving in a different direction.

It is said that when the Titanic sank, the third class passengers remained locked in the lower decks and drowned. These passengers, evidently, were considered as a nuisance. Today, I think that the elites have already understood that there really is no reason why planes should have an "economy class." The result is a new generation of planes that only the rich are supposed to use. By getting rid of the commoners on board we can have less pollution, faster planes, lower use of fuel, and more comfortable flights. And here an example of the result: the Aerion AS2, a supersonic jet for just 8-12 passengers.

The Aerion AS2, an example of the new generation of passenger planes: supersonic business jets (SSBJs)

That is just an example, but the buzzword with the airlines right now is "bizliners," planes (not necessarily supersonic) designed and operated to cater to special groups of people who can afford them: politicians, business people, sports teams, etc. Just not the kind of planes that we, humble commoners, will ever be able to use. But so is life: flying was a privilege that many of our generation enjoyed, but nothing lasts forever. At least, we won't feel guilty about flying anymore!

A comment from Ugo Bardi's personal troll, Mr. Kunning Druger

So, Mr. Bardi -- I can imagine you gloating while you were writing this post, weren't you? Exactly what you and your friends always wanted, especially the braided witch from Sweden. You always hated the idea of ordinary people enjoying the benefits that fossil fuels bring to humankind. Flying, for instance. And now you think you are winning, right? I am sure that your friends in high places promised you a seat in one of those shiny new bizliners, I can see you gloating, indeed. Well, think it over. You were one of the crowd that was claiming "peak oil," right? It was another scam directed to enslave us, the people, to the powers that be. And now, with oil prices at historical lows, your scam has been exposed: there is no such thing as "peak oil." Oil is abundant as ever and planes will keep flying, no matter what you write in your ridiculous rants.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)