x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Will vertical takeoff soar in the Middle East?

As the aviation industry watches oil prices surge and margins dwindle, executives are going back to the drawing board.

A vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, the BA 09 tilt rotor, runs on the taxiway in font of an Airbus A380 after a training session. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol (FRANCE)
A vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, the BA 09 tilt rotor, runs on the taxiway in font of an Airbus A380 after a training session. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol (FRANCE)

As the aviation industry watches oil prices surge and margins dwindle, executives are going back to the drawing board.

Industry chiefs meeting in Abu Dhabi said they expected the next decade to bring radical changes to aviation in an effort to restore stalling profits, from tinkering with existing engine blueprints to dreaming up new designs.

One such suggestion was for a passenger plane that lifts off vertically, like a Harrier jump-jet.

Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) technology could be reconfigured for domestic aviation as a means of circumventing runway congestion at airports, said Giuseppe Orsi,the chief executive of Finmeccanica, the Italian industrial conglomerate.

"There are a lot of opportunities out there that we could and should exploit," he said.

"VTOL may be one answer to reduce the need for airports and to reduce the need for runways."

Tilt-rotor technology, developed for use on the V-22 Osprey transport currently in service with the US Marine Corps after a lengthy development, was one technology that the company was looking at with interest.

"Regional traffic is [a] bigger consumer of runway slots and a non-economical consumer of slots," Mr Orsi said. "With the limitations … why don't we really develop something that allows us to increase the capacity of the airport but enter it in a different way? Political concerns over increasing capacity at increasingly crowded terminals in Europe have prohibited runway extensions at airports including London Heathrow.

The International Air Transport Association estimates that a US$4 swing in the average price of Brent crude from $111 last year to the consensus estimates of $115 for this year will add $36 billion (Dh132.23bn) to the industry's costs this year.

Brent crude futures were trading at $120.30 per barrel yesterday.

The need for fuel efficiency and the razor-thin profit margins across the airline industry are changing the priorities for manufacturers, said James Albaugh, the president and chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

"Developing more efficient airplanes is something we know we have to do for this industry," he said.

Boeing abandoned development of a supersonic aircraft during the last decade because it was deemed too expensive for airlines to run. Both Boeing and its rival Airbus have since sought to develop new aircraft models to improve fuel efficiency.

In spite of rising costs, the high price of oil was expected to spur new innovation in the airline industry as manufacturers rush to supply airlines with the most cost-effective aircraft available, said David Hess, the president of Pratt & Whitney, the engine maker.

"We're on the verge of another wave of technology being driven by the spike in fuel costs," he said. "And with the start-up of new airlines like Qatar Airways, the legacy carriers are having a tough time competing with that and are going to have to refresh their fleets."

The engine maker dramatically increased the fuel efficiency of its engines largely because heavy competition eroded airline profit margins, forcing executives to seek lower costs at every turn.

"It's because of the financial incentive the industry has had to drive improvements in fuel burn," he said. "The byproduct is the environmental benefit."

ghunter@thenational.ae

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