Airbus’ Challenging But Worthwhile Experiment: Airliner Formation Flying

Airbus announced that starting from next year, it will be executing a demonstrator project aimed at studying the viability of two airliners flying in formation to save fuel and reduce emissions. The project, named “fello’fly,” will use a pair of A350s.

The concept is sound. However, even if Airbus develops technologies and procedures allowing for its safe implementation, it might find it challenging to get it adopted on passenger flights.

A Challenging But Worthwhile Experiment: Airbus to Study Formation Flying of Airliners
Airbus will study airliner formation flying starting in 2020. (Credit: Airbus)

Project Fello’Fly: Flying Like Birds Migrate

When an aircraft flies, part of the energy its engines generate is – rather than being translated into the aircraft’s forward motion – lost in creating wake turbulence. This turbulence also the reason why aircraft cannot take off one after another.

The wake turbulence’s energy can, however, be harvested by an aircraft following the “leader” to provide additional lift – and thus reduce the energy the “follower’s” engines need to produce to keep the aircraft flying.

This concept is similar to how birds migrate in formation. It’s also a concept used in car racing among other fields, and the United States Air Force has studied it too.

However, Airbus is the first manufacturer to actively study the concept as applied to the airline industry. Through the “fello’fly” project, the manufacturer plans to:

…demonstrate the technical, operational and commercial viability of two aircraft flying together for long-haul flights.

Airbus Fello'Fly Project
The new project is inspired by how birds migrate. (Credit: Airbus)

More specifically, Airbus will be working on developing systems that would allow airliners to safely fly in formation and procedures that would help air traffic control organizations and airlines execute such flights among others.

Airbus plans to start test flights related to this project in 2020 using a pair of A350s. It targets an initial entry-into-service of this new concept for the first half of next decade.

A Challenging But Worthwhile Experiment

While chances are that airliners will not be flying in formation as early as Airbus hopes, the project is still well-worth executing. After all, if all goes as planned, airlines will be able to use anywhere between 5% and 10% less fuel on long-haul flights.

While that might not sound like a lot, it’s similar to what winglets can do to an aircraft’s performance, and it’s a considerable amount when taking into account the fact that the most significant portion of an airline’s operating costs is fuel.

Besides saving airlines money, burning less fuel is also good for the environment, of course.

Winglet
Adding winglets to aircraft can reduce fuel consumption by a few percent.

There are many groups of flights that could take advantage of the new technology if successfully developed. Taking Lufthansa as an example, its flights from Frankfurt to Nagoya and Tokyo in Japan could fly in formation for the vast majority of their trip. Similarly, transatlantic flights from London to, let’s say, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia could fly in formation most of the way.

With all of the above said, even if successfully developed, the technology will face challenges with adoption.

Laws and rules dictating how far apart from each other aircraft need to be flying will need to be rewritten. Air traffic controllers, pilots, and planners will need to be trained. Most of all, though, the flying public will need to be convinced about the technology’s safety.

After all, no single passenger will not benefit from the technology in any significant way.

Combined with the fact that unlike winglets which are just a “regular feature of an aircraft,” flying in formation sounds – and likely is – more dangerous than flying “alone,” it will likely be a while until passenger flights adopt this concept.

Summary

Wanting to fly like birds do is what inspired people to develop aircraft in the first place. As such, it wouldn’t be surprising if trying to mimic birds even further would help us improve the efficiency of flight.

Considering that airlines are always looking for ways to reduce fuel burn and that reducing carbon emissions is a hot topic right now, I believe this experiment is worthwhile.

That said, unfortunately, I also think that even if the technology is proven to be safe (for reasons similar to why I believe the 737 MAX will have difficulties returning into service), it will have a difficult time getting adopted on passenger flights due to the perceived danger of formation flying.

Because of that, if we ever see this concept come to fruition, I believe it will be on cargo flights first – perhaps followed by passenger flights.

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