Last updated: 01:00 PM ET, Thu January 07 2016

How NASA Could Save Airlines Billions in the Future

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 07, 2016

How NASA Could Save Airlines Billions in the Future

Photo courtesy of NASA

The days of NASA’s space program dominating the media headlines are in the past. However, the organization is still relevant when it comes to research, unmanned exploration and design. In fact, new NASA plane designs, inspired by research on fuel efficiency and aerodynamics, could potentially save the commercial air travel industry billions of dollars in operational costs.

One of NASA’s post-astronaut efforts is the Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project (ERA). Its original goal was to find ways to make the aviation industry more eco-friendly. They decided that one of the most obvious ways to do this was to decrease emissions by creating more fuel-efficient planes.

No longer at the mercy of fuel prices

Of course, one of the side effects of more fuel efficient planes is that airlines won’t have to pay as much for gas. Carriers themselves have already been experimenting with various forms of biofuel and airplane manufacturers have been producing slightly more efficient aircraft. None of these things will be as game-changing as what NASA is promising in the future: airplanes that use 50 percent less gas than today’s models.

The airline industry is at the mercy of a very simple ratio: the more oil and gas costs, the less profits carriers will make. Some airlines use futures to hedge against high gas prices, but this could backfire as it now has for Southwest, which can’t take advantage of the current low fuel prices because it has purchased futures that require it to buy at a higher price.

The point is that there is no fuel strategy that is always going to be successful, so the best strategy would be to cut reliance of fuel as much as possible. Flying airplanes like NASA's that use half as much fuel would be an obvious way to accomplish this.

NASA's big promises

NASA administrator of aeronautics research Jaiwon Shin said that if the industry adopts NASA’s ideas, it could save billions of dollars: “If these technologies start finding their way into the airline fleet, our computer models show the economic impact could amount to $255 billion in operational savings between 2025 and 2050.” 

As you probably noticed, Shin mentioned “computer models.” Any changes based on ERA research would have to be adopted by airlines and airplane manufacturers and then exhaustively tested and perfected "in the real world" before they are used in commercial aircraft. That is why the period of “saving billions” won’t start until 2025.

A well-funded project with applicable ideas

At the same time, these ideas are not the proverbial pie in the sky. Over the past six years, NASA invested $400 million in the ERA project and other groups pitched in another $250 million. The goal of the project was to improve efficiency and lower pollution by focusing on three things: airframe technology, propulsion technology and vehicle systems integration. In all, eight “demonstrations” were created. These will be given to the airline industry and the background research made available as well. All the ideas, including new aircraft body designs and wing shapes, are meant to be applied; they are not meant to remain theoretical.

At the very least, airlines will take notice of the possibility of more-fuel efficient designs and technology, not because it is “good for Mother Earth,” but because it is good for their bottom line. 


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