Airline executives know just how problematic high fuel prices can be—so dangerous that they can help take down already-fragile companies. In fact, fuel costs make up an average of 34% of airline operating costs. So it’s not surprising that airplane manufacturers are scrambling to get technologies that can cut down on fuel usage ready for commercial airliners.
This week, Boeing showcased the ecoDemonstrator, a 737-800 airplane on loan from American Airlines that contains a mish-mash of technologies that might be in airplanes down the line, including variable area fan nozzles that allow the engine fan to be optimized for different flight conditions; adaptive trailing edge technology that changes the shape of the wings, making them more aerodynamic based on where the plane is in flight; a full-scale regenerative fuel cell that "basically takes water and makes its own fuel," according to Jeanne Yu, Director of Environmental Performance at Boeing; and an engine vibration reduction system.
Boeing and the FAA also are working together on a flight trajectory optimization procedure that could allow planes to fly more precise approaches into airports, cutting down on wasted fuel. And Boeing is looking at iPad-type devices in the cockpit to get real-time weather data from satellites. As it stands, pilots receive weather data before they take off and will fly hundreds of miles around a weather pattern to avoid any nastiness. "With this you can get [real-time] data on where storms are occurring," explains Yu.
The ecoDemonstrator is in the middle of a 40-day test window, where Boeing is measuring everything from noise to pressure data. So far, the results are promising. "We are capturing ideas to make lighter-weight, simpler mechanisms to help all our plane designs going forward," says Yu.
This version of the ecoDemonstrator is just the first of many plane testbeds for Boeing. Next year, the company plans to use a wide-body airplane and examine the possibility of taking recycled composite materials to make airplane parts.
And as for this year’s model? It will be refurbished and go back into American Airlines’ fleet, where passengers will have no idea that they are flying on what was once a glimpse of the airline industry’s future.