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The future of low cost air travel: What are the options?

Travel Tips

Cape Town - Up to 40 percent of the operating costs of moving a Boeing 737-800 aircraft between Johannesburg and Cape Town can be attributed to the costs of the fuel burnt which can quickly amount to more than R26 000.

Reducing or eliminating this cost would certainly reduce the costs to operate a flight. There are incredible strides being made with regards to alternative energy sources for aircraft, including solar-powered and nuclear-powered flight, which could be a reality in our lifetime. So what can we expect from the near future of low-cost air travel?

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Up to 40 percent of the operating costs of moving a Boeing 737-800 aircraft between Johannesburg and Cape Town can be attributed to the costs of the fuel burnt which can quickly amount to more than R26 000.

 

Balancing the old with the new

Aircraft manufacturers are under huge pressure to design fuel-efficient aircraft and engines. Already, as technologies have advanced, fuel efficient design has come a long way. An older aircraft, like the Boeing 737-400, can carry 164 passengers in a full economy configuration, while a newer generation 737-800 can carry 189 passengers while burning pretty much the same amount of fuel.

New generation aircraft offer greater efficiencies, but airlines face a difficult challenge weighing up the lower purchase or lease costs of older generation aircraft versus the fuel savings on newer aircraft.

 

Solar powered flight

The ultimate solution would be to find an alternate energy source altogether. Technological advances in solar energy over the past few years have opened a number of new doors. The world’s first solar-powered plane, Solar Impulse 2 (Si2) has been making headlines as it completes a historical journey around the world.

One of the primary drivers behind the idea of solar powered flight is actually military drone technology. The idea is to be able to create drones that can effectively stay airborne for very long periods of time, allowing for almost unlimited surveillance and potential weapons placement.

Interestingly, solar-powered passenger flight was already achieved decades ago! The first passenger-carrying solar powered flight took place in 1979, but only lasted a few minutes. Since then in 1990 the Sunseeker, a fully solar-powered aircraft, managed to cross the United States. The Si2 will make major strides in advancement of the technology, but these solar-powered aircraft are very light vessels, essentially gliders that fly very slowly. The most they have been able to carry is two passengers.

A Johannesburg to Cape Town flight would take about 16 hours in the Si2.

 

Nuclear flight

Nuclear energy is a topic of hot debate in South Africa currently, but actually provides a very real alternative as a source to power jet flight. Modern submarines and ocean liners are often powered using nuclear energy, but the technology has yet to be completely effectively implemented into an aircraft.

Nuclear power offers the possibility of a very clean and almost endless source of power, but the risks associated with the use of this technology in aircraft are vast – including the risk of radiation, and of course the possibly devastating results of a potential nuclear disaster.

The early 1950s represented something of a golden age for nuclear. Despite the atomic bomb devastation of 1945, the general public remained fairly upbeat about the prospects that nuclear power offered. The Cold War provided ample motivation for both the United States and Soviet militaries to compete to become the first to achieve nuclear-powered flight - the benefit being the development of bomber aircraft that could perpetually circle military targets.

Nuclear-powered flight was ultimately achieved by the Soviet Union in the early 1960s. A modified Tupolev Tu-95 aircraft conducted almost 40 flights between 1961 and 1969. One of the primary challenges in the development of this technology was to develop shields that would protect the crew from radiation, the difficulty being the weight of the required shielding. Unfortunately, this aircraft had very crude shielding and the crew operating it died from radiation poisoning.

Nuclear technology has however come a long way since the 1960s and the Boeing Company raised a number of eyebrows last year when they patented a new design for a nuclear powered jet engine, which could perhaps signal the dawn of a new era in aviation.

Adapted from a press release for IOL

* Kirby Gordon is Head of Sales and Distribution at FlySafair

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