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Green light for the new A380

  • Story Highlights
  • Major landmark in aviation history as A380 takes to the skies
  • Race to find alternative to the current "tube and wing" design
  • New "flying wing" design seeks to reduce environmental impact of air travel
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By Matthew Knight for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Airbus' new A380 "superjumbo" hauled its gargantuan frame off the tarmac and into the skies this week and began its 7˝-hour maiden commercial flight from Changi Airport in Singapore to Sydney International Airport in Australia.

The Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 lands safely in Sydney to complete its maiden commercial flight.

Measuring 73 meters long, 80 meters wide and 24 meters tall, it is the largest commercial airliner in the world, and will carry a maximum of 555 passengers in the standard three class configuration -- first, business and economy.

Undoubtedly the event is a major landmark in aviation history, but does the A380's entry into service mark the beginning of a new cleaner era in air travel? Or is it the final call for the jumbo jet as environmental concerns compel the manufacturers to totally rethink the efficiency and design of air transport?

The airline industry has changed radically in the 13 years it has taken the A380 to get from drawing board to runway. Consumers have seen the price of a flight plummet, and consequently more people are flying than ever before -- passenger numbers have been rising at a steady 5 percent a year since the late 1990's.

So too are the environmental costs of flying -- air travel currently accounts for 12 percent of transport carbon emissions and around 2 percent of all global carbon emissions.

The trend looks set to continue as passenger numbers are expected to triple by 2030. So just how green is the world's newest and biggest passenger plane?

Airbus state on their website that the A380 "burns 17 percent less fuel per seat than today's largest aircraft", and that this represents "the most significant step forward in reducing aircraft fuel burn and resultant emissions in four decades. The CO2 footprint per passenger has never been so small".

The fuel-burn figures are slightly misleading though. Quoted as 2.9 liters of fuel per passenger per 100 kilometer, the calculations are based on the plane having a full house of 555 passengers and don't include the weight of luggage or any cargo which might be on board.

However, noise levels on take-off and landing are unquestionably lower. Based on an internationally defined takeoff and landing procedure, the A380 is also at least four decibels quieter than the Boeing 747-400. This equates to an impressive 50 percent decrease.

And the prospect remains that if enough A380's enter service -- so far only 185 have been purchased by 15 airlines -- its large capacity could reduce or stabilize the growing number of flights, helping to stem the airline industries contribution to carbon dioxide emissions.

Boeing -- who were initially involved in the A380 project in 1994 -- say that their new 787 Dreamliner, which is scheduled to begin commercial flights in 2009, will burn 20 percent less fuel than any other airplane of its size.

Not only are airline manufacturers keen to display their greener credentials, so too are their customers, the airline carriers.

In June this year, one of Europe's largest low-fare airlines Easyjet unveiled a new prototype plane which they say could slash carbon emissions by half. The "Ecojet", as they have dubbed it, is planned to be operational by 2015 and would produce 50 percent less carbon dioxide than planes flying today.

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The basic shape of their existing Boeing and Airbus fleet will not change, but will be modified. Open rotor engines situated at the rear of the plane will produce 25 percent less carbon dioxide per passenger.

According to Easyjet, a further 15 percent reduction will be realized by constructing the wings and fuselage out of a lighter aluminum composite material. Another 10 percent will be saved by reducing the flying speed of the adapted aircraft.

Virgin Atlantic boss, Sir Richard Branson announced last year that he would be investing $3 billion in renewable energy technologies through a new business venture Virgin Fuels.

Earlier this month, the 57 year-old entrepreneur announced that he would start testing biofuels in one of Virgin's 747 jets in early 2008.

Whether or not the current efforts of Virgin and Easyjet prove to be environmentally beneficial in the long-term, there is little doubt that making potential customers aware of their commitment to improving the environment make sound commercial sense in the short-term.

What isn't in dispute is that the conventional shape of the world's airlines is a highly successful model. Since they were introduced in the 1960's jets have improved their performance by 70 percent, according to the Nobel Peace Prize winning UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

According to Dr. Thurai Rahulan from the University of Salford, UK: "The tube and wing design is proving to be extremely difficult to beat," he told CNN.

Dr. Rahulan is someone who knows a thing or two about aeronautical engineering. He has recently supervised a team from University of Salford who designed a new energy efficient plane -- called the "flying wing". What's more he was involved in the design and construction of the Airbus A380's enormous wings.

Dr. Rahulan began his involvement with the A380 in 2001 and worked on the structural stress reduction system. He believes that the A380 is "an incredibly efficient form of transport".

But it is his most recent project that has the potential to make an even greater environmental leap forward.

"One of the things I was looking at with the flying wing," Dr. Rahulan said, "Was to see if it was possible to compress the fuselage and blend it into the wing itself."

The flying wing -- which performed well as a remote-controlled model in tests -- owes its efficiency to the fact that it has no fuselage and therefore a smaller area is exposed to drag from the wind.

"As the design begins to mature we seem to be homing in on a 150-seat configuration. But there are a lot of issues to be addressed. How will passengers be accommodated in such a configuration?

"Secondly, the pressurization. We understand a lot about the traditionally designed aircraft but when you have a blended wing, you have a lot of compartments consisting of strange geometries," he said.

Another problem Dr. Rahulan predicts is the evacuation of passengers in an emergency. "One of the good things about a fuselage is that you have plenty of escape routes down the side of the plane," he said.

Although take-off capability in the flying wing is compromised, due to poor rotation, Dr. Rahulan said, "It has enormous potential for the way people travel. Current aircraft design is pushing the limits of efficiency. The flying wing offers the prospect of a greener future in air travel."

NASA scientists and Boeing have also been working on a design similar to that made by the University of Salford. The blended wing body (BWB) X-48 model, which has engines located at the top rear of the plane, has already passed wind-tunnel tests and in July this year the X48B took its first flight reaching altitudes of 7,500 feet.

Environmental fears are inspiring engineers to come up with increasingly bold aircraft designs. UK based Reaction Engines Limited are working on what might just be the future of air travel.

The Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies (LAPCAT) is a stunning futuristic design powered by liquid hydrogen fuel. Traveling at speeds between Mach 4 and 8, a flight from London to Sydney could be reduced to four hours.

The need for urgent action on climate change was highlighted yet again this week as a new study suggests that global warming will be "stronger than expected and sooner than expected". New data shows that carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere much faster than was previously thought.

Scientists put this acceleration down to two factors -- the explosion in Chinese economic growth and a reduction in pollution that's being soaked up by the world's land and oceans.

The upshot is that human carbon emissions will have to be cut more sharply than previously thought and air travel -- a serious and serial offender in the eyes of environmentalists -- looks likely to be in the firing line for the foreseeable future. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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