For an industry so focused on innovation and efficiency, commercial aviation is seemingly on an eternally long, straight taxiway to deliver the next great fuel saving. Important in an industry facing extreme operational pressures, but what comes next?

Airbus’ 2050 Concept Aircraft and Smart Skies are more than just a funky conceptualisation, Airbus sees them as a way to spark debate and discussion among all industry stakeholders. And more importantly engage the aviators of tomorrow.

Speaking at last week’s Airbus’ Charles Champion, Royal Aeronautical Society’s Charles Kingsford Smith dinner, Executive Vice President of Engineering was at pains to reinforce the mentality of thinking about programmes now and for the next ten years must change. In looking at future concepts, Airbus has identified a whole gamut of issues to substantially improve efficiency and also engage minds to make the concepts a reality.

If a good representation of Airbus’ leadership, Champion seemed pretty genuine about the need to engage the younger generation that will take over the industry; explaining Airbus’ practical steps to encourage the transition. The Concept Aircraft and Safer Skies team consists of around 30 young engineers, who work with a minimal budget and have given their time for free outside usual Airbus work commitments, to develop a creative yet convincing case for future air travel.

Airbus sees a move toward smaller sustainable airports, energy neutral airports, powered by wind farms and algae. Image: Airbus S.A.S

Champion says future aircraft design could be compromised by a lack of knowledge of judgement. As an ever larger number or engineers retires, there is a decreasing number of young engineers with various levels of training to replace them, creating a gap in the knowledge that is passed on. The result? Younger aircraft engineers lack the capacity to judge the validity and application of their designs. To overcome this Champion says “our engineers are continuously encouraged to think widely and come up with ‘disruptive’ idea”.

The world also faces a shortage of pilots. The situation is dire, and to be honest, endless forums on how to encourage the next generation to jump in the cockpit, without actually engaging us directly, aren’t working. Compounding this issue, Champion pertinently argued that dealing with pilots of all standards is likely to become a disruptive issue, with the increasing number of multiple crew licenses and regulatory approvals for training only working to increase complexity further.

Airbus’ assisted takeoff would run on an electromagnetic track system. Allowing for smaller engines, lower aircraft weight, and the ability to use continuous climb power setting. Image: Airbus S.A.S

This is where Airbus has taken itself to the fore. “We have to ask if there are entirely new ways of doing things, and we have to have the conversation with the airports, the government authorities, those concerned with the development of better air traffic arrangements, as well as the airlines” says Champion. Airbus is not just tooting its own horn, it is pushing the industry to engage in a contextual discussion involving multiple stakeholders.

Airbus’ future concept is not solely focused on operator cost and the flight experience, but synthesising the entire operating environment. Champion argues that this will be the only way to meet the stringent targets the industry has set for itself.

Creativity is the key. The Concept Aircraft is only an idea. But, any future Airbus aircraft will be strongly influenced by combination of airframe and engines in a way that has not been explored today, Champion made it clear that Airbus would draw from some, but not all of the elements. He explored the particular idea of formation flight having the capability to reduce separation to 1nm. Airbus research indicates “in a V formation of 25 birds, each can achieve a reduction of induced drag by up to 65 per cent and increase their range by 7 per cent”. This alone equates to 10-12% for three aircraft in formation.

2050. Will we see today’s rife competition or a few giant airline groups? Who hopes to float around in airships again? Will we have truly ‘Open Skies’ to fly anywhere at anytime? Radical ideas, but given the environmental sceptics fighting sustainable change, and aviation foe finding new ways to restrict this vital industry on a daily basis, it’s important for aviation that the future begin today.

More on Future by Airbus here.