The Australia Institute’s campaign against air travel (revisited in Crikey on Friday) declares the aerospace industry incapable of addressing greenhouse gas emissions and support of a surcharge of $30 per trip to “curb demand”.

As if. The mature markets of North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, which have flights that are overwhelmingly populated by customers paying multiples of the sucker bait discount fares and who aren’t flying for fun, seldom care what the fare is, and wouldn’t blink at a $300 surcharge.

The Institute has engaged in the usual tactic of social engineers — excluding all evidence inconsistent with its agenda.

In engine technology, the elephant in the room is “ducted fans”, a type of engine that has clear potential to extend and enhance the fuel efficiencies of turbo-props to larger airliners optimised for the inter-city routes that currently account for most scheduled flights and emissions.

The reduction in fuel burn already demonstrated is less than 40% of a jet powered aircraft by comparison, yet the technology hasn’t even been scaled up to commercial application.

In terms of gross emissions, a typical market served exclusively by ducted fan airliners could fly two and a half times more passengers than one served by today’s jets yet emit no more by volume of greenhouse gases.

The engine and airframe makers are jostling for a virtuous cycle, where a plane which has a reduced fuel capacity suited to Sydney-Melbourne or Chicago-New York type routes has an inherently lower structural weight and a reduced cruising altitude which in turn reduces the per passenger fuel burn to a fraction of a comparable capacity jets.

For intercontinental routes the advance research money is going into “blended wing body” designs that look like UFOs and promise radical efficiencies.

If the global market forecasts of a trebling of passengers by 2030 come true, it will be in a world where exceptionally energy efficient aircraft by current standards have become available long after the typical Asian carrier depreciation cycle has expired for any jets manufactured up until 2020.

Yet as an authority on what aerospace technology can’t achieve, the Institute has put Airbus and Boeing on notice that really, it’s all a waste chaps. And it seems unaware of other dynamics in mass transport, such as fast rail.

Europe is finally at the threshold of sustainable high speed surface transport systems in part due to the pressure of the low cost air revolution and the chronic time-wasting experienced at airports, where flight is often the slowest of options.

If air traffic between any of the nearest combinations in the Melbourne-Canberra-Sydney-Brisbane corridor were to treble in line with global aviation forecasts those routes would become as plausible by passenger numbers for the application of current 320 kmh fast rail technology as London-Paris today.

But if air travel technology was deprived of an expanding market and capacity was reserved for the ruling cadres and Institute ideologues, the aerospace efficiencies that will allow the market to grow to the point where high speed surface systems can replace much of it will never happen in Australia.

Discouraging aviation beyond the technologies and traffic volumes of 2007 is as absurd as deciding in 1957 that 40 passenger Vickers Viscounts were the apex of aviation efficiency, and should be capped forever at sixteen flights a day each way between Melbourne and Sydney.

Peter Fray

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