AW&ST Editors' Picks 20210910
Welcome to this week's editors' picks. A weekly digital experience highlighting the must-see content from Aviation Week & Space Technology
<i><b>From discussing 9/11 to the future of aviation. </i></b>
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Airbus, Boeing Revive Intense Rivalry For Bridge Tanker
Ten years after heated KC-X competition, Bridge Tanker renews the bitter rivalry between Airbus and Boeing under eerily familiar conditions.
Airbus, Boeing Revive Intense Rivalry For Bridge Tanker
The Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport is operated by several countries’ air services, including the Royal Australian Air Force, whose MRTT is pictured refueling a Boeing C-17. Credit: Christian Turner/U.S. Air Force
On Feb. 24, 2011, the U.S. Air Force selected Boeing over Airbus for the KC-X tanker contract. The $20.6 billion award closed a bitterly protracted competition but finally established two certain facts: Boeing would deliver the first batch of 179 tankers over the next 18 years, and both sides would meet again in roughly a decade to fight over the contract for the next batch.
Ten years and some six months later, the competition for the Bridge Tanker contract, formerly known as “KC-Y,” has begun. The Boeing KC-46 and Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport—this time rebranded as the Lockheed Martin/Airbus LMXT—are already posturing for a planned three-year competitive phase, leading to contract award probably in fiscal 2024.
- Airbus and Boeing revive intense rivalry for U.S. Air Force bridge tanker
- Performance, pricing drive bidding process
The obvious prize for the competitors is a contract for a single company to build 140-160 tankers at an annual rate of about 12 per year, with the first delivery of a production aircraft expected shortly after Boeing ships the 179th KC-46A in fiscal 2029.
As in the KC-X competition, however, other forces are at play.
For Airbus, the Bridge Tanker ranks among one of the few franchise-level, U.S. defense contracts suitable to the company’s product portfolio, with the opportunity to establish a possibly taxpayer-funded, widebody aircraft assembly site on U.S. soil as an attractive bonus.
For the LMXT’s prime contractor, Lockheed, the Bridge Tanker may fill a potential gap in its mobility product portfolio after the end of C-130J production and improve its chances to win contracts for the Advanced Autonomous Refueling (AAR) aircraft in the mid-2030s as well as a new large military transport in the 2040s.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s team, an incumbent with a troubled track record, is under pressure to deny those opportunities to two companies that comprise its most formidable competition in the commercial and defense markets, while seeking to recoup billions in losses on the first batch of deliveries with another long production run.
Some of the competitive dynamics have changed, but the signs still point to an intensely competitive bidding process, posing a critical test of the Air Force’s managerial skills in a time of sharp congressional scrutiny.
The Bridge Tanker is “going to be just as important” as the KC-X to Airbus and Boeing, says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group. For both airframers, waning demand from airlines in the widebody aircraft sector only increases the competitive pressure to win a potentially $20 billion order from the Air Force.
“The widebody market now is as bad as it gets. Nobody wants a widebody, and pricing in the jetliner businesses in general has taken a hit,” Aboulafia says. “So defense looks like one of the few ways to make that good.”
The Bridge Tanker competition opened publicly on July 19 with the release of a “sources sought” announcement by the Air Force Lifecycle Management Center. This is a mandatory step, ensuring all possible bidders are made aware of a pending competition.
Further problems with the Remote Vision System of the KC-46, pictured lining up to be refueled by a KC-135, could jeopardize Boeing’s bid for the Bridge Tanker. Credit: Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Okula/U.S. Navy
The announcement, however, clarified that the Air Force expects the Bridge Tanker winner to deliver the first production aircraft in fiscal 2029 as well as enough operational tankers to declare initial operational capability by the following year. That schedule implies a brisk process, with bids likely due in fiscal 2023, contract award in fiscal 2024 and first flight of an aircraft that meets the Bridge Tanker’s specifications by around fiscal 2027.
Over the next year, the Air Force’s program executive office for mobility and tankers will be crafting an acquisition strategy, including the evaluation criteria that will define the winning bid.
As military derivatives of commercial aircraft, the KC-46 and the A330 MRTT-derived LMXT come with certain parameters that cannot be easily changed. The KC-46, for example, carries a maximum of 212,000 lb. of fuel, or about 15% less than the larger and heavier A330 MRTT. If the Air Force prizes fuel offload capacity in the evaluation criteria, the KC-46 could be disadvantaged. If the evaluation favors the lowest-cost, technically compliant option, however, the smaller KC-46 may have an advantage.
The Air Force faced such a decision a decade ago with the KC-X about the same aircraft. In that case, the evaluation formula set a minimum threshold for fuel offload, then offered an escalating series of credits for providing more capacity. That approach during the KC-X competition seemed to favor the A330 MRTT, but the credit came with a caveat: Credits for exceeding the fuel offload minimum would be awarded only if the bids came within 1% of each other.
In effect, the KC-X evaluation formula showed that the Air Force valued the lowest-priced, technically compliant bid over all other factors, including the aircraft that offered the most fuel capacity. (Ultimately, Boeing’s total price for the KC-X contract came in 10% beneath Airbus’ bid, which nullified the credit for additional fuel capacity.)
In a competition between derivatives of existing aircraft, the finely tailored criteria that guided the 2011 KC-X decision offer a lesson. The elaborate formula constructed for that bidding process came three years after the KC-X competition first round ended in an embarrassing failure for the Air Force.
Amid severe scrutiny from Congress and the media, the Air Force originally awarded the KC-X contract in 2008 to Airbus, which was then partnered with Northrop Grumman. But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) overturned the decision about six months later. According to the GAO’s July 2008 decision, the Air Force initially informed the competitors that no extra credit would be given for exceeding the fuel offload capacity requirement, yet cited the A330 MRTT’s larger size and fuel capacity as a key factor in the final decision.
Now, a decade later, the Air Force again faces a decision over how to score the same 15% disparity in fuel offload capacity between the competitors for the Bridge Tanker contract.
To some analysts, the difference in fuel offload between the KC-46 and the A330 MRTT should not be a factor in the competition. “When it comes to additional fuel, I’m not so sure that’s as compelling,” Aboulafia says, “You know, a boom is a boom is a boom.”
But Scott Hamilton, founder of the Leeham consultancy and author of Air Wars, a newly published book about the Airbus-Boeing rivalry, points to the original Air Force decision that favored Airbus and the rising importance of fuel capacity to operate over the Pacific Ocean.
“The longer range and the longer loiter time of the A330 versus the [KC-46] was at the time one of the things that was part of the equation,” Hamilton says. “Today, we see more aggression out of China, so are [those] capabilities going to be more important than [a lowest-price, technically acceptable bid]?”
The Air Force is not the only party in the competition that faces hard decisions. The likely six-year stretch between contract award and the IOC milestone suggests the Air Force has little appetite for inserting advanced technology. The sources-sought announcement signaled that the Air Force wants the Bridge Tanker to carry the latest networking and self-defense equipment on board, but otherwise few new features may be required. Under those conditions, the Air Force often prefers to use a fixed-priced contract for the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase and to shift the risk of any cost overruns to the contractor.
Boeing bid aggressively in 2011 to win the fixed-price EMD contract for the KC-X but lost $5 billion over the next decade due to unexpected glitches and delays on a supposedly low-risk project. Much may depend on the maturity of a major pending upgrade to the KC-46 Remote Vision System (RVS). Already the source of the costliest delays and Air Force frustration with the KC-46, Boeing is scheduled to deliver the upgraded RVS 2.0 shortly after submitting final bids for the Bridge Tanker. Any further delays or technical glitches to the RVS 2.0 will complicate Boeing’s bidding calculations for the next batch.
The Lockheed/Airbus team also has decisions to make about how much risk to accept on a fixed-price contract. The Air Force, for example, required Boeing to obtain FAA certification of the military refueling systems on the KC-46. The A330 MRTT is operated by several air forces, but the LMXT may still need to undertake the often complicated process of certifying military hardware with the FAA. Unlike Boeing, the Lockheed/Airbus team also faces the cost of establishing final assembly and modification lines in the U.S. for the LMXT fleet.
How Effective Can ‘Over The Horizon’ Operations Be In Afghanistan?
With no ground forces to guide airstrikes, the Pentagon will rely on long-range drones to keep terrorist groups at bay in Afghanistan.
How Effective Can ‘Over The Horizon’ Operations Be In Afghanistan?
The MQ-9 Reaper is helping the U.S. military demonstrate it can continue air strikes in Afghanistan without forces on the ground. Credit: Senior Airman Helena Owens/U.S. Air Force Illustration
A U.S. Air Force General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper took off from a Persian Gulf base on Aug. 27 for an extended-range mission to Afghanistan’s far east, a strike that served both as retribution for a massive suicide bombing the day before in Kabul and a demonstration of how the Pentagon will conduct operations in the country without forces on the ground.
This MQ-9, a modified version with an external fuel tank and longer wings, fired its weapon at what U.S. Central Command said was a “planner” for the group known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) in Nangarhar province near the Pakistan border.
For weeks before the chaotic drawdown, Pentagon officials maintained the U.S. military had an extensive capability to conduct “over the horizon” counterterrorism strikes on Islamic State group and al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan, even with no U.S. intelligence presence on the ground. The strike demonstrated U.S. drones can still loiter in Afghan skies and hit key targets, to put ISIS-K on notice and reassure the U.S. public. However, maintaining that capability will not be easy.
“[Over the horizon] strikes are never easy operations, since they require close coordination across multiple sensor and command-and-control assets,” says U.S. Air Force Col. (ret.) Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Successfully ‘closing the kill chain’ and doing so with great accuracy and avoiding unwanted collateral damage is further complicated when targets are highly mobile [and] change locations frequently.”
Specialized MQ-9s have conducted strikes in Afghanistan
Lack of ground forces raises civilian casualty concerns
In recent years, U.S. forces have been able to overcome those challenges. The issue of long-range strikes played out two days after the Nangarhar strike. On Aug. 29, an MQ-9 made the long flight from the Persian Gulf to Kabul, where surveillance showed what U.S. forces believed was ISIS-K preparing a car bomb to attack the Kabul airport.
The MQ-9 fired one missile at the target in a populated area. The strike destroyed the car, and then there was a secondary explosion—a sign that other explosives were there.
“We had very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific type vehicle at a specific type location,” Gen. Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said Sept. 1. “We went through the same level of rigor that we’ve done for years, and we took a strike.”
Immediately after the strike, reports on the ground began to indicate civilian casualties. A preliminary analysis, obtained by The New York Times, reported that the Reaper operator made the decision to fire on the car when it was in a secluded area, but additional people emerged after the Hellfire missile was released.
“So were there others killed? Yes,” Milley said. “But we believe that the procedures . . . were correctly followed, and it was a righteous strike.”
The Aug. 29 airstrike took place when some U.S. forces were still on the ground and with aircraft monitoring the area and intercepting communications. After the withdrawal, fewer assets are available to collect such information. “Big Wing” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft such as the Air Force’s Northrop Grumman E-8 and Boeing RC-135 and associated tanker support are not expected to be part of a regular air tasking order to Afghanistan.
Extended-range MQ-9s from the Persian Gulf, and possibly larger Northrop Grumman R-4 Global Hawks, will track targets in Afghanistan. These aircraft can feed information into extensive artificial-intelligence capabilities, such as the nascent Project Maven analysis effort to help the targeting process, says Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“New intelligence processing capabilities, including those [artificial intelligence]-enabled algorithms, are enabling U.S. commanders to track patterns of life and improve their ability to engage targets using [remotely piloted aircraft] when the targets are isolated,” he says.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., said Sept. 8 that the Air Force and U.S. Central Command will need to become more strategic in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over Afghanistan, shifting to a “broader look for indications and warnings of what might occur” beyond just monitoring individuals. This would include both aircraft and U.S. Space Force space-based assets.
Throughout the Kabul airlift, Air Force F-15s, F-16s, B-52s and U.S. Navy F/A-18s provided overwatch to protect U.S. forces on the ground. With the Air Force unlikely to devote its tankers to Afghanistan, the carrier-based fighters can provide faster strike support. This, however, would require the Navy to keep a carrier off the coast of Pakistan instead of in higher-priority theaters, Clark says. All aircraft will need to rely on the “boulevard” of airspace through Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan, and both the State Department and the Pentagon expect that support to continue.
To help with intelligence, Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin left the door open to an unlikely collaboration following the U.S. withdrawal: working with the Taliban.
“It’s possible,” Milley said.
“I would not want to make any predictions,” Austin added. “I would tell you that we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K, understand that network, and at the time of our choosing in the future, hold them accountable for what they’ve done.”
Beta Technologies Keeps It Simple In Certifying Its eVTOL
Beta’s Alia eVTOL hews as close to a conventional fixed-wing aircraft as possible.
Beta Technologies Keeps It Simple In Certifying Its EVTOL
For Beta Technologies, the most direct path to certifying an entirely new class of aircraft is to keep it simple. The Vermont startup’s strategy is to focus on the key innovation and keep the rest of the aircraft as conventional as possible.
- Alia shows range potential in conventional flight
- Vertical flight will be focal to the next test phase
Beta is developing the Alia electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The key innovation is distributed electric propulsion. But the company has designed the Alia to spend as much of its time as possible flying like a fixed-wing aircraft.
There are no articulating nacelles, no variable-pitch rotors, no gearboxes, no liquid cooling. There are multiple redundant electric motors and battery packs in a lift-plus-cruise configuration designed to combine safe and efficient vertical and horizontal flight.
There are no advanced flight control laws to make the machine easier to fly. A session in the simulator in Beta’s Washington office makes clear that the Alia is designed to be flown by a professional pilot. It is a decision intended to simplify the route to certification.
“The number of requirements that you impose on an aircraft will define your path to certification. Because every one has to be paired with a means of compliance, a test and an objective assessment of the failure mode effects and criticality analysis,” says Beta Founder and CEO Kyle Clark.
“So the first step in simplicity is minimizing the requirements,” he says. “If we have a flight controller and say, ‘No longer is that flight controller required to have airspeed or angle of attack,’ those are two things you don’t have to test or write a means of compliance for.”
Keeping it simple is central to Beta’s strategy for FAA certification. “The FAA wants a win here,” Clark says. “They’ve done a great job of laying the groundwork . . . [and have] been very helpful in ensuring we get clarity. Because indecision, in my opinion, is the biggest impediment to our progress.
“It doesn’t mean we get the answer that we want, but it is clear,” Clark continues. “And I believe what they appreciate about our design is that there’s simply less to do.”
Where Beta’s closest eVTOL competitors all use tilting mechanisms to vector thrust, the Alia has four lift propellors for vertical flight and a pusher prop for wingborne cruise. Shaped like blender blades, the fixed-pitch lift props are stopped in forward flight, aligned fore and aft with the airflow to minimize drag.
To provide the commercial aviation level of safety required, each of the Alia’s four lift props is powered by two motors, each of them with dual windings, providing fourfold redundancy. A dual-redundant motor drives the pusher propeller. Up to five independent battery packs power the props.
Outside of those features, the Alia is resolutely conventional, with a long-span wing for low cruise drag and redundant ailerons, elevators and rudders for control in forward flight. In place of retractable gear, the aircraft has “skwheels”—landing skids that incorporate wheels in a low-drag arrangement.
Unlike the eVTOL prototypes, the Alia has been flown piloted from the outset. Credit: Beta Technologies
“The No. 1 thing is to take the requirements out,” Clark says. “And if you leave it on the ground, it doesn’t exist. You don’t have to certify it, you don’t carry it around, you don’t have to pay for it, you don’t have to design the system for it. It’s just intensely practical to not put it on the airplane.”
Simplicity must be balanced with capability. Here the fact that all of Beta’s employees are pilots, or becoming pilots, plays a role. “The trick is to find the balance,” Clark says. “And if you put somebody in the cockpit every day, they start to learn what’s really important, not what they think is important.”
The strategy of simplicity threads through Beta’s operation from technology to market to funding. Unlike its leading rivals, the startup does not plan to operate its own eVTOLs but instead to manufacture, sell and support them. Beta already has purchase agreements with Blade, UPS and United Therapeutics (see chart).
The startup also sets itself apart from its direct competitors by expecting that cargo will be the first eVTOL application to scale up, because securing customer and public acceptance will be more straightforward.
Beta has already raised $511 million in private funding and, unlike its rivals, the company is not planning to go public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company. Becoming a public company at this stage would unnecessarily complicate Beta’s business operations, Clark says.
Instead, the startup has carefully selected private investors directly aligned with its mission and with a clear understanding of the complexity of certifying even a simple eVTOL. The $368 million funding round in May was led by Fidelity Investments, along with Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Redbird Capital. “We elected to take in these investors. They did not have ulterior motives beyond our mission,” he says.
Beta’s strategy has been shaped by Clark’s experience developing highly reliable power electronics for national laboratories and companies such as Raytheon and Tesla—“people who say, ‘it’s simply not tolerable for this not to work properly,’” he says.
The company’s approach “is the result of having built many hundred kilowatts of power systems and recognizing that it is not trivial, especially when you are trying to put [a new technology] into an environment where it has never been before,” Clark notes.
“The only way that it ended up working there, and the only way I believe it is going to work in aviation, is to identify the most valuable feature of the technology you are introducing,” he says. “And in our case, it is the fact you are taking all the fuel out of the aircraft.”
Beta’s goal is to exploit the benefits of electric propulsion—simplicity, fuel elimination, energy savings and maintenance reduction—and the vertical flight capability of distributed propulsion. The Alia is designed to fly point to point with the ability to take off and land on a 50 X 50-ft. pad.
A variable-pitch pusher prop provides propulsion in wingborne forward flight. Credit: Beta Technologies
With a 50-ft. wingspan, the 7,000-lb.-gross-weight aircraft is designed to carry a pilot and five passengers or 200 ft.3 of cargo in a capacious fuselage. The performance target is to fly a 600-lb. payload 250 nm at 145 mph—or 1,500 lb. 200 nm—on a single charge, with recharging taking about an hour.
The Alia has a 330-kWh battery system under the fuselage. In testing to date, the aircraft has flown 205 nm in fixed-wing-only mode with three of the five battery packs installed. “It is a happy, happy CTOL [conventional--takeoff-and-landing] aircraft,” says Clark. “It’s burning 100 kW doing 105 kt. That’s a remarkably efficient aircraft at this weight.”
The eVTOL is designed for efficient cruise flight to conserve battery energy, and the power-hungry vertical takeoff and landing phases are minimized. “The hover and transition time at the beginning and the end total between them about 40 sec.,” he points out. “You’re only spending 40 sec. of a 2.5-hr. mission in VTOL.
“One of our best missions is to take off vertically and land like an airplane, or vice versa, because you get the value of VTOL with the range boost of hitting one end as a CTOL,” Clark says. Blade CEO Rob Wiesenthal cites the ability to take off vertically from a helipad in Manhattan and land conventionally at John F. Kennedy International Airport as one of the key reasons he selected the Alia.
Beta has built two piloted engineering prototypes of the Alia. The company started testing in February 2020 with tethered hover flights at its base in Burlington, Vermont, but then the airport was closed in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the prototype was airlifted by helicopter across Lake Champlain to Plattsburgh International Airport in New York.
“We were going to do a bunch more hover testing before we went to fixed-wing,” he says. But after the Burlington airport was shut down, “we said, ‘let’s bring the fixed-wing testing over to Plattsburgh.’ Then Plattsburgh was shutting down to resurface their runway.” So after a few hundred hours of fixed-wing flights, the prototype was flown back to Burlington this July.
“We’ve done a lot of CTOL flying. We have plenty of energy in the bank to get to those ranges,” Clark asserts. “And we are hell-bent on completing all our pre-FAA testing to make sure that, aerodynamically, the aircraft does everything we expect it to.” The company has now restarted hover testing at Burlington. “We’re getting back into gearing up for transition testing on the manned version.”
Beta has completed hundreds of transition tests using subscale unmanned models. “Every day we’re doing transition testing on the unmanned versions and evaluating the corner cases. And we have high-fidelity simulations in the iron bird,” he says.
“One of the coolest tools we have is a rolling wind tunnel. We put the transition props on that and bring it down the runway at 100-plus kt. with those running on top of a 20,000-lb. truck to evaluate all the different inflow angles to the lift props.”
Beta also is still using its original Ava XC eVTOL demonstrator as a test asset. This is a modified kitplane fitted with four tilting pairs of coaxial variable-pitch rotors. “We use it as a flight controller test platform, for the battery management system and the fly-by-wire system,” Clark says.
The Alia is now fitted with wheeled-skid landing gear for ground maneuverability. Credit: Beta Technologies
The Ava has provided Beta with valuable insight into how to shield the electronic systems against electromagnetic interference from the high-power, high-frequency electric motors. “Your shielding has to be robust to failures. So that airplane and the iron bird are some of our best test assets,” he says.
The two Alia prototypes are nonconforming. The aerodynamics are what Beta plans to certify, but the airframe structure is not representative of the production vehicle. The first conforming prototype is planned to fly in 2022, and Beta is targeting FAA Part 23 certification by the end of 2024.
Beta is not as vertically integrated as some of its competitors. “We’re doing everything that is enabling internally—so the motors, inverters, batteries, flight controls, and the overall aircraft configuration and integration,” Clark says. The startup is going outside for the rest.
“This is another one of our secrets to getting through certification—there are already smart people that know how to build actuators and structure, propellers, interiors and avionics,” he says. “We’ve chosen to be the best propulsion company in the world. Copper comes in the door, and motors go out.”
If simplicity is a Beta strategy, then so is partnering. “If you choose not to include something on your airplane, it makes it cheaper, it will take less time. It’s a pretty fundamental truth,” he says. “And the parallel to that is that partnering with the best in the world for those elements that are not enabling electric propulsion is the right way to keep our promises to our customers.”
Beta’s customer base covers three key eVTOL use cases: urban air mobility, express logistics and medical transport. Blade plans to add the Alia to its on-demand helicopter service; package carrier UPS will operate the eVTOL as a small regional feeder; and United Therapeutics will use the aircraft to rush refurbished and manufactured organs to hospitals for transplants.
“In my opinion, cargo and logistics will unquestionably be adopted at a faster rate than passenger and other similar missions,” Clark says. He expects there to be less emotion associated with customer and public acceptance of eVTOL cargo operations.
This also applies to installing the infrastructure required to enable eVTOL operations. Echoing Tesla’s approach to introducing electric cars, Beta is already deploying its own charging stations at airports and hospitals across the U.S. to support its aircraft.
“We’ve been putting in a lot of recharging systems, both on- and off-airport. And the friction associated with putting in a charging station where you typically bring in cargo and logistics is way lower than in areas where people live,” he says.
The charging stations are an integral part of Beta’s business plan. While its eVTOL rivals are partnering with real-estate developers on infrastructure, “We have hundreds of permits underway. We are cementing the ground and putting power out to airplanes,” Clark says. Beta has infrastructure built or permitted at over 50 sites and expects to reach a deployment rate of two a week.
One product is an off-airport charging station, an “airport in a box” built from shipping containers that includes an elevated landing deck, crew rest and flight planning rooms, as well as chargers for aircraft and vehicles. “We have a number of those deployed and are putting more into hospitals,” he says.
Other charging stations in development include an on-airport dispenser. This is a UL 1741-certified product designed to connect to the electric grid and to safely trip offline in the event of supply perturbations. Beta is also developing a mobile system that resembles an airport fueling truck.
“The product vision for the charging systems is fundamental to the success of the aircraft,” Clark says. And in addition to deploying charging stations to support the Alia, “we have a couple of partnerships with other manufacturers, and we have their aircraft here now, quietly working,” he adds.
Opinion: Why Air Travel’s Recovery May Be Years Away
An effective global COVID-19 vaccine rollout, improved coordination of government travel policies and luck with variants will be needed.
Opinion: Why Air Travel’s Recovery May Be Years Away
Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
“When will air travel return to pre-COVID levels?” That arguably has been the most popular aviation industry question asked over the last 18 months. AeroDynamic Advisory undertook a bottom-up assessment in 2020 that projected late 2023 as the time when normalcy would return. Some of our clients were stunned by the pessimism, while others reluctantly agreed. We’ve stuck with this forecast, but I am beginning to think we may be too optimistic.
The emergence of the delta variant, now dominant across the world, is a potential game changer. Someone infected with it contaminates another 5-9 people, compared with 2-3 infected by the original COVID-19 strain. This means the global vaccination threshold for herd immunity is closer to 90% rather than the original 70%. It also means hospitals around the world are bursting with new patients, threatening to overrun health care systems. Some 8 billion vaccines will be required for full global coverage (see graph). Most of Asia, Latin America and Africa will be heavily affected for several years due to late and uneven vaccine coverage. The high transmissibility of the delta variant means new variants will evolve more quickly, including some with the potential to evade current vaccines.
It is against this backdrop that the return of air travel has to be evaluated. Global air travel in 2019 was 8.7 trillion revenue passenger kilometers (RPK), with about 65% for international travel. International travel remains moribund.
Governments have adopted a wide variety of policies for air travel, vaccination, tests and quarantines. Some ban all international visitors, some have established travel bubbles with certain countries, and some allow visitors but require a mandatory quarantine. Few governments have yet to factor vaccination cards into their air travel policy since there is a lack of standardization in vaccine record-keeping across the globe. Each country has chosen its own policy mix. This includes the European Union, which just recommended that its 27 nations reinstate restrictions on tourists from the U.S. because of rising delta-variant infections in the U.S.
International travel therefore entails a major “hassle factor.” Business executives must not only deal with the logistics of different test requirements but also factor in the risk of a lengthy quarantine should they acquire the virus during travel. In the price-sensitive leisure segment, travelers must pay for numerous COVID-19 tests that sometimes rival the cost of the air ticket itself and also cope with the risk of being quarantined.
Domestic markets—the other 35% of global RPKs—are also suffering. Highly vaccinated China, one-third of this total and once an aviation bright spot, is in free-fall thanks to the delta variant. Seat capacity plunged 32% in early August, and the government seems determined to eliminate COVID-19 before reopening. Russia, which has suffered more than 500,000 excess deaths during the pandemic, still has a low vaccination rate and reported a record number of deaths in July.
There is positive news. The sharp rebound in the U.S. domestic market (about 15% of global RPKs) this year demonstrates that pent-up demand is real. Global vaccine production capacity could reach 15 billion doses in 2022. One-third of this capacity features revolutionary mRNA technology, which can be quickly adapted for booster shots or to address variants as they emerge. Governments are beginning to implement vaccination mandates. And a growing body of evidence shows that vaccinated people have substantially lower mortality and hospital admission rates than unvaccinated people. This means many governments will simply adopt policies to live with COVID-19 rather than eradicate it. The U.S. and UK have chosen this path.
Can air travel demand really return by 2023? It is still possible, but an effective global vaccine rollout, improved coordination of government travel policies and a bit of good luck with the variants will be needed. Aviation stakeholders would be wise also to consider a more pessimistic scenario in their strategic planning. As Canadian academic Wade Davis reminds us, “Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors.”
The views expressed are not necessarily those of Aviation Week.
Podcast: How 9/11 Unfolded At Aviation Week
Aviation Week editors witnessed terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and flew on missions guarding the capital. Listen to their stories.
Podcast: How 9/11 Unfolded At Aviation Week
Aviation Week editors witnessed terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and flew on missions guarding the capital. Listen to their stories. Looking at this document as a PDF? Click here to listen to the podcast on our site.
Editorial: Why Biden’s ‘Extraordinary Success’ Is A National Disgrace
The White House either had bad intelligence about the staying power of the Afghan Armed Forces or ignored it. Either was a colossal mistake.
Editorial: Why Biden’s ‘Extraordinary Success’ Is A National Disgrace
Credit: Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa/Getty Images
U.S. President Joseph Biden’s decision to pull the U.S. military out of Afghanistan was correct, but the way the retreat was carried out is a national disgrace.
After 20 years, more than $1 trillion spent and 3,605 U.S. and allied soldiers killed, it was clear the effort to remake Afghanistan into a functioning democracy was built on quicksand. During their tenures, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama refused to admit that the country is a quagmire for foreign invaders, as the Soviet Union learned in the 1980s and the British before that.
While Biden was gutsy to follow through on the withdrawal initiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump, the U.S. failed to adequately plan for the complex evacuation of Americans and Afghan compatriots. The White House either had bad intelligence about the staying power of the Afghan Armed Forces, which disintegrated in two weeks, or ignored it. Either was a colossal mistake.
Most galling is that Biden left behind tens of thousands of interpreters, contractors and other Afghans who had aided U.S. and NATO forces. Their fates are now at the mercy of the vengeful Taliban. He ignored pleas from U.S. allies to extend Washington’s Aug. 31 deadline so more of these partners could be evacuated. We’ve criticized Trump on these pages for damaging the NATO alliance. This has only done further harm.
To be sure, Biden inherited a bad situation. The Doha Agreement signed with the Taliban well before his election committed to a withdrawal of American forces in 2021. Local Afghan leaders, seeing that the U.S. was leaving, looked to the future and cut deals with the Taliban. But even when the U.S. inexplicably abandoned Bagram Air Base in July, there seemed to be little urgency to evacuate Western citizens and Afghan allies. Was the administration asleep at the switch?
The last-minute U.S. airlift of 124,000 people from Kabul’s besieged airport certainly was a well-executed operation by skilled servicemembers. But Biden’s characterization of the withdrawal as an “extraordinary success” was offensive, coming so soon after 13 American military personnel and scores of Afghan civilians were killed in a terrorist attack as the evacuation was underway.
In 2003, Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared victory in the Iraq war under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” That image haunted him as the U.S. became bogged down in Iraq for years. Biden’s “extraordinary success” may come to haunt him, too.
Firefly Investigating Signal Loss That Led To Engine Shutdown
The booster flew for more than 2 min. despite losing one of four engines.
Firefly Investigating Signal Loss That Led To Engine Shutdown
Firefly’s Alpha rocket lost one of its four first-stage engines 15 sec. after liftoff but continued flying for more than 2 min. until it began to tumble, prompting a range safety officer to detonate the booster’s Flight Termination System. Credit: Matt Hartman
The day before Firefly Aerospace launched its first Alpha rocket, Founder and CEO Tom Markusic was most concerned about the hold-down clamps at the base of the booster that must release within milliseconds to allow the vehicle to lift off.
“I can accept if we ultimately find another problem that we could have only found in flight, but I just can’t accept a ground system causing us to lose a mission,” Markusic told reporters on Sept. 1.
- Second vehicle is in production
- Engines recovered after flight terminated
The clamps performed flawlessly, and the 97.6-ft.-tall booster lifted off from Space Launch Complex-2 (SLC-2) at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 6:59 p.m. local time on Sept. 2.
Markusic’s relief was short-lived. Fifteen seconds after liftoff, one of the rocket’s four liquid-oxygen (LOX) and kerosene-fed Reaver engines shut down, though the ascent continued so cleanly that Markusic initially wondered if the declining pressure reading of Engine 2 was due to loss of telemetry, not the engine.
“The acceleration was perfect,” Markusic tells Aviation Week. “It didn’t seem like anything happened. . . . We really didn’t understand the implications for probably 60 sec. That’s when I started to worry about how it was all going to end.”
The rocket continued climbing for about another minute, heading on a western trajectory that would take it up over the Pacific Ocean before turning south. Upon reaching an orbital perch 186 mi. above Earth and inclined 137 deg. relative to the equator, the booster was to deploy a 57-lb. payload consisting of educational memorabilia and technology demonstrations. The payload included a Purdue University drag sail that would have helped deorbit the rocket’s upper stage and a Firefly plasma thruster the company designed for its upcoming Space Utility Vehicle tug.
But it was not to be. As the Alpha hit supersonic speed about 2 min. after liftoff, it began to cartwheel, prompting a range safety officer to trigger the rocket’s Flight Termination System and end the Alpha’s debut. “In that transonic regime, where you’re going into Max q [the point of maximum dynamic pressure on a vehicle], the drag builds up very precipitously, and that makes it very difficult to control,” Markusic says.
The rocket’s engine compartment was thrown clear of the blast, which occurred at an altitude of about 50,000 ft., and landed about 0.75 mi. away from the launchpad. “That whole truss structure and cluster of engines stayed together all the way to the ground,” Markusic says. “We recovered them, so we have the ability to go look at these components.”
The rocket’s engines were recovered after impact about 0.75 mi. from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Space Force Base. Credit: Firefly Aerospace
Preliminary analysis indicates a valve that feeds propellant to Engine 2 closed when it lost its electrical signal. “It’s a relatively simple way that that valve gets its electrical signal—it’s a wire and connectors—and somehow that electrical continuity was interrupted,” Markusic says. “Why it lost its signal is the subject of our investigation.”
Firefly’s unique Reaver engine utilizes a combustion tap-off power cycle in which some of the exhaust energy from the main combustion chamber is diverted to power the engine’s single-shaft turbopumps. While tap-off cycle engines are not new, the Firefly design is the first for an orbital boost engine and the first that uses RP-1 (kerosene) rather than liquid-hydrogen propellant.
The major benefit of the tap-off cycle, which is also a form of open-cycle gas-generator propulsion system, is increased simplicity.
While previous open-cycle engines such as the Saturn’s F1 and current RP-1 fueled systems like SpaceX’s Merlin engine are configured with two combustion devices—one for thrust and the other for powering the LOX/RP-1 turbomachinery—the Alpha’s engines are configured with only a single combustor for both functions. Fuel and oxidizer pumps are initiated for both first- and second-stage engines using an inert gas before ignition, after which the tap-off cycle is self-sustaining.
The Alpha’s engine design also incorporates innovations to offset the usual disadvantage of the tap-off cycle, which normally sacrifices some propellent to cool the combustion chamber gases driving the turbomachinery.
Although the company has previously been reluctant to discuss details of the design, Firefly Co-founder Eric Salwan, director of commercial business development, says the engine incorporates a regenerative cooling system that combines forged copper channels with a protective electroplated nickel jacket.
The design enables fuel to be pumped around the engine, which absorbs the heat of combustion before being injected into the chamber and combusted to provide additional thrust. The copper provides a good heat sink and, because of the special nickel plating, is able to sustain the heat of combustion throughout the engine’s life cycle without ever reaching its melting point.
“We found a way to do this without wasting any fuel for cooling, which was pretty extraordinary and ultimately makes the engine very efficient,” says Markusic.
Previously known as Firefly Space Systems, the company was about to begin full-scale tests of a different Alpha launch vehicle when funding dried up in late 2016. The company shut down in 2017 before venture-capital investor Noosphere revived it. In May, Firefly completed a Series A financing round that raised almost $200 million.
With a lift capacity of 2,200 lb. to low Earth orbit (LEO) or nearly 1,400 lb. to sun-synchronous orbit—about twice the lift capacity of Virgin Orbit’s Launcher-One and more than three times the lift capacity of Rocket Lab’s Electron—the Alpha is designed to address the upper end of the small-satellite market. Starting price is $15 million, positioning Firefly to offer the lowest cost per pound to orbit in its vehicle class.
The company has a second vehicle in production and was prepared to begin commercial launch services as early as December if the flight test was successful. Depending on the mishap investigation, Firefly could conduct a second flight test before year-end.
Firefly also is working on orbital transfer vehicles and a small lunar lander called Blue Ghost, which won a $93.3 million NASA Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract to deliver 10 science payloads to the Moon’s surface in 2023.
Firefly also plans a medium-class booster, called Beta, capable of delivering 5-10 metric tons in LEO, filling a niche opened by the retirement of United Launch Alliance’s Delta II.
—With Guy Norris in Colorado Springs
Transatlantic Airline Traffic Recovery Prospects Looking Bleaker
Europe's recommended tighter restrictions for U.S. travelers is a blow to airlines hoping for a long-haul recovery.
Transatlantic Airline Traffic Recovery Prospects Looking Bleaker
KLM has removed some planned U.S. destinations from its winter schedule. Credit: KLM
Airlines waiting for a full reopening of the transatlantic sector in the summer and then in September were dealt a blow Aug. 30 when the European Council recommended instead a further tightening of COVID-19 restrictions on U.S. travelers to Europe, removing the nation and a handful of others from its “white list” of safe countries.
The council’s recommendation is just that—a recommendation. But even if member states can choose not to follow it, and even if the changes may not actually hinder travel plans for many—with an ever-growing majority of the U.S. population now vaccinated—the signal it sends is a gloomy one for airlines.
The council recommended that Israel, Kosovo, Lebanon, Montenegro and North Macedonia also be removed from the European Union’s safe list, which allows travelers to enter and not have to quarantine if they present a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of vaccination, whether or not their trip is considered essential.
Under the new guidelines, only travelers from the newly restricted countries who are fully vaccinated or whose trip is considered essential should still be allowed to travel to the European Union.
But the gloomy signal has already translated into schedule changes as some European countries—including Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden—have responded to the recommendation with their own updates to travel rules. The Dutch government has designated the U.S. a very high-risk area, meaning a 10-day quarantine is required even for vaccinated travelers
KLM said it would remove from its winter schedule proposed new flights from Amsterdam to Miami and Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas until further notice. Describing the decision as “a big step backward for KLM,” the airline added: “Health and fighting COVID-19 are paramount, but the measures taken must be effective and proportionate. It looks like other EU member states, such as Italy, France and Belgium, are not putting a triple lock on the door for travelers from the U.S.”
Air France is waiting to see if Paris will impose tighter restrictions on U.S. travelers, too. Having observed positive trends over the summer in the North Atlantic segment, thanks to what an Air France spokesman calls the “dynamism of demand from the U.S. to Europe,” the airline’s winter schedule includes 11 U.S. destinations. The schedule likely will evolve depending on the travel-restrictions situation.
Germany designated the U.S. a high-risk area in August, which was bad news for Lufthansa Group. Not long before the change in designation, CEO Carsten Spohr said North America was the group’s most profitable market, helped by cargo. In early August, Swiss, also part of the group, said a reopening of the U.S. was “the key to any further substantial recovery.”
Even if many member states are not yet following the EU recommendations, the muddle highlights the lack of coordination about which airlines have been complaining since early in the pandemic.
The airline industry welcomed the rollout of the EU COVID Digital Certificate (DCC), aimed at easing travel in the region over the summer. But the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned Sept. 2 that free movement within Europe is still being compromised by the failure of EU member states to harmonize COVID-19 entry regulations. “As a result, the reopening of borders is confusing travelers and businesses and not delivering the expected benefits in terms of easier travel and economic recovery,” IATA said, noting that about 30% of states using the DCC are not accepting rapid-test results, and 41% are not allowing vaccinated travelers from non-EU white-list countries to enter.
“The good work done by the commission and the states to develop the DCC is being wasted by a mess of unharmonized regulations,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s regional vice president for Europe.
The status of transatlantic travel was already a hot topic for Europe’s airlines just before the summer season. They hoped the normally lucrative segment, if free from restrictions, could help their flagging long-haul activities close the gap with short-haul traffic—which has now recovered to around 72% of 2019 levels, according to Eurocontrol. However, while restrictions eased for U.S. residents traveling to the EU in June, the U.S. kept in place restrictions on foreign nationals traveling to the states.
The U.S. is on the UK’s “amber list,” which means fully vaccinated travelers still must take a COVID-19 test after arrival, and unvaccinated travelers must quarantine. British Airways reported a 95% surge in bookings within hours of the addition of the U.S. to the amber list at the end of July. It said at the time that it was adding thousands of seats on key U.S. routes starting in the second half of August and would continue to broaden its U.S. schedule through September.
Before the pandemic, the region’s legacy carriers relied heavily on the transatlantic segment. They had reported a boost in booking activity on those routes since June, when restrictions on travel from the U.S. to Europe were eased—-raising hopes that with further easing, that positive momentum could continue.
OAG data shows that the number of one-way seats from the U.S. to Western Europe increased to 1.3 million in June, 1.6 million in July and 1.8 million in August, from 1 million in May, as U.S. travelers took advantage of eased entry requirements. That trend is now likely to reverse if more countries fall in line with the European Council’s recommendation.