Monday, August 18, 2008

Sustainable aviation...

Whither flying?  I remember a moment in O'Hare, when after several years of looking at road warriors whose weariness was evinced by labored step and rumpled clothes, I realized I was they...I was them...them and I...we was one...

Jeez..never mind.  Let's just say I was the one of those people whose day was made when the TSA announced laptop-friendly cases.

We could be (oh, please, God!) a vanishing breed.  Air travel might be a long-term victim of high energy costs. In a fantastic article, Bradford Plumer examines the future of flying.  While he offers a wonderful summary of trends and implications, it was this paragraph that stunned me.
More important, if less evident, was the air-freight revolution of the 1980s, as companies like Federal Express bought up planes and transformed logistics and shipping in the United States, creating a system that sped up deliveries, gave the economy vast new flexibility, and fueled the rise of Internet distributors like Amazon and eBay. Air freight now plays a huge role globally, carrying, for instance, one-third of the value of all U.S. imports. And the system relies heavily on cheap fuel: Every night, FedEx keeps a number of empty planes up in the air, to better respond to requests at a moment's notice. [More] [My emphasis]
I find myself agreeing with many of his predictions.  Viewed from a distance the enormous expenditure of energy to pretend to ignore gravity cannot be the way of the future.

Others feel bigger (and necessarily, fewer) planes are the answer.
Some have expressed concern over the environmental impact a plane of the size of the A380 may have. However, powered by American aircraft engine maker, Engine Alliance's GP7200 engines, A380s have a range of up to 9,320 miles and offer better fuel economy per passenger mile than most hybrid passenger cars, burning just 3.1 litres of fuel per passenger per 100 kilometres which equates to 20% less fuel per seat than today's largest aircraft.

The distribution of digital in flight magazines will also save 2kg per seat, or almost one tonne, per aircraft, helping to make the A380 one of the greenest aircraft in the skies. [More]
I'm less sure that economies of scale will help us that much.  What it will do is concentrate traftic to those few airports that can attract and handle such leviathans.

All this may seem far from our farms and futures, but I'm not so sure.  As we have, until recently, allowed our most limited asset to be owned by others, these off-farm landlords could be even more distant.  While this seems like a good thing for many, it also implies the rental choice will also be made at a distance.

In other words, we will have to develop a presence on paper, on-line, even by phone that replaces face-to-face communications and local reputation. Few of us are truly ready for that degree of abstraction.

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