How much longer can our current model of air transportation remain sustainable? In answering that question, Paul Wylde, creative director for Teague’s Aviation Studio (a design consultant to Boeing) developed a concept called Flight 2.0, a radical approach to flying that involves government-subsidized airships, luxuriously slow travel, exorbitant fees for flying as fast as we do today, and less dependence on fossil fuel.
Flight 2.0 changes the way we think about flying. In Wylde’s scenario, commercial flight as we know it today becomes restricted, controlled and too expensive for the majority of travelers. Most of us would travel on a slow-moving, cruise-like airship, taking days to get to a destination that today we could reach in hours.
Why turn the industry upside down like this? According to Wylde, in our recent conversation, we don’t have a choice. “We have one more generation,” he says, “before we run out of gas.”
Tell me how you came up with Flight 2.0.
I was the head of design at British Airways, and I worked on the last ever Concorde refit. Concorde used to travel at twice the speed of sound, and when you design for aviation, the constant battle is to save weight. There’s an irony there, because passengers have an expectation of comfort on board, so designers are always trying to do that with less weight.
With Concorde, there was a deliberate mantra of 20 percent weight reduction. When you reduce pounds of fuel, airlines save millions of dollars. I always had this fascination with how design can deliver beauty while reducing weight.
[Teague has] had the Boeing account for more than 60 years. We’re industrial designers. Sustainability is the single most crucial issue driving mankind over then next 100 years, and we are learning, like every other industry, what sustainability is and how we can have a voice. We’re finding designing is a catalyst. It’s no longer thinking green, it’s thinking blue—which is new ideas.
The basic narrative for Flight 2.0 was conceived at the end of 2009, and then a few months later I saw A Crude Awakening on Netflix, and it really, really shook me. Depending on what you read, we have 1,000 years of gas left and 60 to 70 years of minable petroleum left. We just keep drinking gas like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s scary. It takes 10 years to design a plane, and generally it runs for 30 years. So we have one more generation of aircraft before we run out of gas. China receives a new plane every two days for the next 20 years, if they fulfill all their orders—a combination of Boeing, Airbus, a couple Brazilian aircraft, private aircraft. I got this from CNN.
I developed a very provocative thought piece which we call 2.0. The main narrative is the running out of gas. The second thing is that people have the expectation of speed: Whatever you want you can have it immediately—to eat, to watch on TV, to own. That, in my opinion, is a forced expectation. It’s changed our values.
It’s unnatural to fly from New York to Los Angeles in five hours—it’s not a sustainable expectation or demand. Traveling fast is a luxury, and it's an unsustainable luxury. But it is a natural urge to want to travel. The problem is we are running out of gas.
The whole of the aviation ecosystem has a responsibility in this. In Flight 2.0, we started with government. Government always has had a fundamental voice in aviation and the infrastructure of air travel--saying who is allowed to land where, who can fly over what air space, the flow of oil around this planet. And governments are slowly starting to play the role of an advisor, advising on how we eat, how we consume.
So we’re suggesting governments--in maybe 30 years time—restrict 80 percent of air travel, which at the moment would upset everyone in the industry. You will be able to fly, but you will have to do it in a different way. We want to reposition the role of airships in people’s minds. Airships never really developed since a horrific accident in the early 20th century. We haven’t nailed the technology—a combination of hydrogen propulsion, solar power and fuel cell technology. The point is people will have to slow down. It’s going to take four days now to get from New York to London. People have to change their expectations.
There are huge opportunities for British Airways if they moved into a five-day luxury service. There becomes a blur between business and pleasure. You work, you play. If you’re going to New York on business, you might start your business on the airship and the face-to-face is the deal-signing. Because you are slowing down, the airship will have to accommodate that; it will be like a hotel.
We are suggesting governments be bold and support and fund this, so you’re encouraged not to burn fossil fuel. Because government subsidizes this service, it’s quite luxurious. You get your own cabin.
For those who need speed, say you have to get to New York in four hours, you have to apply to travel fast. We’re suggesting something like the United Nations, like applying for a visa if you want to enter a foreign country. We’re just allowing sustainability to have a major voice. If you are approved to travel fast, you can, but you have to have a really good reason. That form of travel will be very, very expensive because you are paying the price of burning fossil fuel.
Flight 2.0 is looking at the whole picture: 80 percent by airships; 20 percent by the usual fossil fuel.
When people will need to fly quickly, what does that aircraft look like?
We redesigned the fuselage. We stripped out all the elements that weren’t essential. We removed the lining package to reveal all the stuff that’s hidden from you—ducts, wiring. We removed the layer of disguise in an attempt to save weight. If you go to a really cool loft apartment, cool shops, bars, restaurants, there’s a trend now in revealing. We thought, let’s reveal the mechanics of an aircraft.
We revealed the flooring beneath the aircraft as well; the seats are the bare minimum. Ironically we kind of retrieved the early days of travel—when there was a reason for every element, which is built on engineering. So how far could you push things and still have it be acceptable by travelers? It becomes a very Spartan experience, very functional. Yet you’re having to pay a huge price—$5,000 to $10,000--for speed.
And the airship experience?
Today’s first class becomes economy, but economy becomes a first class experience on the airship. It’s very luxurious, and it’s subsidized—this is how most people would travel and they would pay $1,000. We banned luggage from the aircraft. You can just take an overnight bag, and then British Airways could have clothing vending machines. People don’t like the idea of using clothes that are not their own, but that’s what we do with sheets every time we stay in a hotel. It’s adjusting that mindset.
The airship sounds like a cruise ship in the air.
That’s exactly what it is. The airship could really slow down and fly at a quite a low altitude. What a view you’ll get! An incredible way to fly. At night it could speed up. During the day you could take in the beauty that the planet has to offer. We’ve forgotten about that. Air travel has gotten so bad that you define it by the things you don’t like.
There have been a lot of ideas of airships floating around, but I don't believe anyone has used government, energy, airlines, airports in the airline ecosystem to come up with a solution.
What technology will you use for the aircraft?
We’re suggesting a composite material much like the 787—a carbon fiber and other materials. We didn’t go into too much detail on that or the airship. It’s more about the strategy.
We developed three Ps in sustainability:
- Product: We need to change product, using new materials and composites to reduce weight.
- Politics: We need to change the political system of government air travel, and governments need to have a more important role in advancing air travel.
- Perception: People will have to realize that slow is beautiful.
Does this feel like a big change for you, from designing the interior of the last Concorde?
In some ways it’s very similar. You’re still trying to figure out how to save weight. [In the Concorde] we had a plan to take off all the magazines. When you think of 100 magazines, two flights a day, 365 days a year, that’s a lot of weight and a lot of fuel.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle for Flight 2.0?
The biggest obstacle will be uniting all the stakeholders, because they all promote their own self interest. Airports want to become brands; airlines are struggling in how to get their yields back; and airlines make their money through the business cabins. Basically, aviation design hasn’t dramatically changed in the last 20 years. The innovation is with very elaborate business class--seats that turn into beds. I haven't seen any innovation in terms of sustainability, except the new composite in the 787, delayed by two years. I’d like to see some real innovation now.
One of the major barriers to innovation is certification. It is a very expensive, very complex, bureaucratic and time-consuming process—certifying new materials to make them air-worthy. Every new part you want to introduce in an aircraft has to be recertified. Everything has to be fire-tested. But then what’s the price of not getting lighter materials in the air? Sustainability may be the only way we can modernize the industry.
Did Boeing ask you to develop Flight 2.0?
No, it was truly speculative. It was a self-initiated project. But there’s no secret about the whole industry’s quest for weight reduction.
How did Boeing respond?
We haven’t formally shown it to Boeing yet.
Do you see this concept as a public-private partnership?
It has to be a public-private partnership, which I believe is a sustainable model. Sustainability is a community responsibly. I got into a passionate debate with a very, very senior engineer at Boeing. My suggestion was that sustainability is about restriction. I grew up in a [British] community where consumption is a community responsibility. Amassing stuff does not bring happiness. It’s wrong that people have three cars, four plasma screens and four houses. When I went to Whole Foods for the first time, I almost fainted—live crab, hot Mexican food, every wine you could wish for. I thought, how much longer can they keep flying in the fresh Maine lobster? How much longer is it sustainable? He passionately disagreed. He said technology will find us whatever we need.
The next 50 years will be fascinating.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com