The next breakthrough in aircraft design is likely to come from a “disruptor” rather than the two dominant planemakers, Boeing Co. and Airbus SE, according to one of the industry’s biggest customers.
“I’m looking for disruptors with new concepts that the OEMs can then latch onto,” Air Lease Corp. founder Steven Udvar-Hazy said in a webinar for the virtual Farnborough International Airshow. “Just like in the automotive industry, it took Tesla, which was a newcomer, to change the views of the major auto manufacturers to electric technology.”
Airlines and their suppliers are under enormous pressure to cut back on carbon emissions and slow the build-up of greenhouse gases. That hasn’t stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gutted research budgets across the industry. European nations like France and Germany have tied bailout money to environmental goals, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday proposed the first-ever federal standards limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from aircraft.
Advances won’t come easy. Current propulsion technology is already near its maximum efficiency, and new ideas such as electrification won’t be simple to adopt to commercial airline service. Embraer SA commercial chief Arjan Meijer, speaking on the same panel, said the batteries currently required to power a regional jetliner would be about 50 times the weight of the aircraft.
Especially important are the needs of low-cost carriers, whose pace of growth in recent years wasn’t matched by new ideas from the planemakers, said Tim Clark, another industry luminary and the outgoing president of Gulf carrier Emirates.
The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max after two fatal crashes may provide the U.S. company with an opportunity to rethink its approach, he said, adding: “The Max has been been a huge wake-up call.”
Clark suggested a collaborative approach to pool technology advances, while Udvar-Hazy said political interference should be kept out of aircraft design.
“We’ve got to get the smart people together” to create a path toward solving environmental issues, Udvar-Hazy said. “But do it in a smart practical way rather than an arbitrary, statistical way.”