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This is about to get interesting again when hybrid/electric planes enable a complete rethink of how planes work and are designed. The first commercial electric planes are currently under development. Both Airbus and Boeing have some plans for about a decade from now on this front. Most of that (but not all) will be hybrid electric.

Current economics are based on the notion that fuel is expensive and therefore you try to fly huge planes with lots of people because it delivers better fuel economy. This completely dominates everything in the aviation industry currently from design, logistics, to operations. The economies are such that you only fly routes where you can fill all the seats and still pay for the fuel. With electric your energy cost is a much less significant. Your main cost shift to infrastructure, cost, maintenance, etc. of the plane. If electric cars are an indication, you can expect some reduced cost there as well.

So, suddenly, flying short hops with small air planes becomes cheap and feasible. So, why fly short hops with a few huge planes that cost tens of millions and burn tons of fuel when you can fly the same route with many smaller planes that you charge using solar/wind/etc. for a fraction of the cost? Changes the game completely. E.g. London-Amsterdam could be dozens/hundreds of 6-12 seater electrical planes instead of a handful of airbuses flying back and forth. Also, London City suddenly becomes more attractive because small electric planes are not so noisy.

Basically on board staff becomes the limiting factor, not fuel cost. Now add autonomous flying to the mix and you solve that as well.




Even assuming all that pans out, isn't there a huge bottleneck in airport capacity?

If air traffic scales down to flights 1/10 the size of today, 10 times as many takeoffs and landings are needed to move the same number of people.

I don't think we have any way to get 10x the airport capacity?


Not necessarily. Small planes need a lot less runway and can fly to way more airports that are off limits for noisy jets. Also wake turbulence is less of an issue so you need to wait less long between takeoffs and landings. And, you can build new airports closer to cities and fly to destinations that are currently not serviced at all.


> hundreds of 6-12 seater electrical planes

Problems with lots of small planes:

* They fly like a roller-coaster (4 seaters are crazy scary for many people).

* More crashes - bad "optics"

* Number of pilots required

They do have the potential to have more direct routes, and very short hops, with less security overheads. Maybe run more regularly, but not much of an advantage because most people want to travel at particular times of the day (same problem with buses).


> E.g. London-Amsterdam could be dozens/hundreds of 6-12 seater electrical planes

As long as they don't all need 2 pilots. I'd really like to see self-driving planes, must be easier than self-driving cars surely? (And, yes, I would fly in one)


Flying a plane is easy. Autopilots have been a thing for a long time. Landing a plane is a bit tricky but doable. The value of human pilots though is in the case of malfunctions. That's the main problem. A failing safe-driving car has always the option of stopping on the side, calling home and lighting the warning lights.

A plane has to find a way of landing safely first. I am not versed enough in aeronautics to even begin to understand how hard it is to reach human-level in mayday situations.


Under normal circumstances a plane can totally land itself at an airport equipped with ILS IIIC. If you’re landing in a corn field because your engine stopped spinning (generally a bad day) the situation is a bit different. This is why I think fully autonomous planes carrying humans won’t happen for a really long time. The stakes when shit goes sideways is really high and it takes skill and a bit of luck to recover from that. Computers don’t yet have that.


Many small business jets are single pilot operations. I think the FAA has 6 passengers as the upper limit for this currently (but I could be wrong). Of course rules can be changed when technology makes this possible. The main limitations for self flying planes are non technical and related to regulations and procedures designed for human operated planes. IMHO, much of that could be solved with today's technology even but it would require disruptive changes that don't quite make sense yet. Once technology catches up it will make more sense and these things will start changing.


>As long as they don't all need 2 pilots. I'd really like to see self-driving planes, must be easier than self-driving cars surely? (And, yes, I would fly in one)

The issue I think is that airplane autopilots rely significantly on sensors which occasionally fail. That means self-flying planes must be able to cope with sensor failures which generally means falling back to visual cues. Self-driving cars that rely just on cameras (rather than LIDAR) are a point of debate regarding their feasibility. Planes that would have to rely on just cameras likely have the same issues.


There is intermediate possibility, the pilot does not have to be on the plane. We already fly drones remotely.


>I'd really like to see self-driving planes, must be easier than self-driving cars surely? (And, yes, I would fly in one)

I wouldn't, if it was made by Boeing. Just look at how badly they fucked up something as simple as their MCAS system, making it only use input from a single sensor. That kind of incompetence isn't going to yield a safe plane that flies by itself.


But isn't the problem that a lot of airports (like Heathrow and Schipol) are operating at capacity? So the only way to get more capacity is to increase the size of each individual aircraft.


Sure, but they are designed for big heavy jets and the reason they are at capacity is because building long runways with noisy approaches is very controversial in densely populated areas.

There are many smaller airports in and around London that you can go to with a smaller plane and quite a few that are more convenient to get to from inside the city. If noise and pollution stop being concerns, many of those would be able to absorb the traffic and building more would be a lot less controversial.




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