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August 16, 2017

4 Aviation Advances Are Lowering the Cost of Flights

Boeing is planning to introduce hypersonic jets that can fly from New York to Shanghai in two hours, CNBC reports. The jets — which will fly at Mach 5, equivalent to 3,800 miles per hour — will serve a small but important niche market of travelers willing to pay a premium for faster flights. Other aerospace manufacturers such as Airbus and Boom are developing similar jets, indicating that competition could help drive prices for hypersonic flights down. Boeing doesn’t anticipate its new jets will be available until the next decade, but successful tests last year by U.S. and Australian military scientists could push the timetable for commercial hypersonic flights up to as early as 2018, The Telegraph says. Australian project leader Alex Zelinsky foresees the new technology revolutionizing air travel and promoting affordable access to space.

Hypersonic jets lie in the near future, but other technological innovations are already driving down the cost of flight. Here’s a look at four aviation advances that are helping bring down the cost of air travel.

More Efficient Engines

Improvements in engine efficiency have helped to lower costs for airlines. One of the most significant innovations has been the developments of geared turbofan (GTF) engines. GTF engines improve the design of traditional turbofan engines by using 3:1 reduction gears on the shaft between the fan in front of the engine and the compressor-turbine assembly in the rear, allowing each to spin at different speeds optimized for efficiency. Pratt & Whitney has spent two decades and $10 billion in perfecting this technology, producing a 16 percent gain in fuel efficiency, along with a 50 percent drop in carbon emission and a 75 percent reduction in noise. This lowers airlines’ operational costs by boosting fuel efficiency and lowering fees associated with emissions and noise. The design of Pratt & Whitney’s engines has also lowered maintenance and repair costs by using more sensors to detect failing parts.

Engine efficiency has also been assisted by the development of new materials such as Viton. This innovative fluorocarbon, also known as Fluorel and Technoflon, is temperature resistant over a potential range from 40 degrees below Fahrenheit to 446 Fahrenheit, in addition to having high chemical resistance. This makes it ideal as an aircraft engine seal, further lowering the cost of maintenance and repair.

Improved Landing Gear Components

Another important advance contributing to lower costs is the improvement of landing gear components, which allows for longer intervals between inspections. The development of larger, heavier engines has driven upgrades to landing gear for models such as the Boeing 737MAX and Airbus A320neo. This improvement to landing gear design has allowed airlines to lower maintenance requirements, cutting costs. For instance, Safron Landing Systems has developed a new carbon brake system for the A320neo, which uses fewer pistons and more carbon, along with a 48 percent increase in ventilation for superior cooling and dispatch reliability, translating into greater efficiency and reduced maintenance. As a result, A-check maintenance procedures have been extended to 750 hours, while C-check maintenance procedures have been increased to 7,500 hours.

More Efficient Fuel Production

A third major factor contributing to lower operating costs for airlines is innovations that have driven down airline fuel costs. Drilling innovations, the New York Times reports, have enabled oil producers to extract more fuel with less work and at less expense. For instance, Stratoil has been able to reduce the cost of drilling from $4.5 million a well to $3.5 million by experimenting with different grades of blasting sand, varying well depth, and using remotely operated well chokes that can be adjusted to optimize flow. As a result of these types of innovations, the average cost of jet fuel spot prices fell from $2.92 a gallon from 2011 to 2014 to $1.25 a gallon in 2016.

Smarter Planning With Analytics

A fourth innovation lowering airline operational costs is the development of smart analytics tools that enable airlines to better deploy resources. Traditional planning systems used to estimate annual budgets lack flexibility to adjust to emerging trends. Smart tools such as Anaplan allow airlines to make adjustments based on real-time data and accurate forecasting to manage flight planning, scheduling, and tracking. The result is more precise budgeting and more efficient cost management.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of EconMatters.

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