Our Take: Why the Pod Plane Won't Leave the Drawing Board
Graphic courtesy of EPFL/TRANSP-OR/LIV/ICOM
Recently, an eye-catching and compelling new aircraft design involving modular pods made some news, for not only its looks but also its promise of making travel easier. For me as someone with fifteen years experience in the airline industry, I see a lot of potential problems that would keep this grounded.
From a passenger perspective … No. Just no. First off, I like to look out the window when I fly. On these pod planes, you may have a window seat, but you’re looking out at another pod a few feet away. If you’re lucky, maybe the pod next to you is also carrying people, not cargo. That could foster some great people watching, but also a whole lot of potential creepiness.
Let’s talk about aerodynamics for a moment. Having three bullet-shaped tubes under the massive wing is bound to cause some aerodynamic issues.
I feel like there’s a reason our friends at Airbus and Boeing haven’t already tried something like this. The weight and balance of an aircraft are of utmost importance in getting off the ground and maintaining an efficient flight profile. The manufacturers and their colleagues at NASA have hypothesized over hundreds, if not thousands of aerodynamic intricacies over the years. It’s the reason we’ve seen the winglet design for the Boeing 737 change three times in about ten years. It’s a good, better, best scenario.
Logistically this seems like a nightmare on its own, even if we were to ignore the aerodynamic issues. From a security standpoint, passengers would have to be screened at railway stations now. Many of America’s train stations have been around since before the age of aviation, and weren’t designed to incorporate a massive scale security operation — which leaves them wide open to terrorism — but that’s for another time, and I only write about planes. Once passengers board the pod, you’re stuck there until you land at your destination. Many people hate being “trapped” on a plane, and this system would add quite a lot of time to that.
The pods would only sit four or five people across each row, comfortably. Train cars are about eleven feet wide, while Boeing’s 737 is 12.3 feet across and seats six per row. The width of the pods would be limited by the size of the train tracks and rail platforms. Unless we were to rip all of that out and start from scratch, which I don’t see happening. Money, money, money.
At the airport, these pod planes would require a lot of space for their giant wingspan. The parking area, (known as the ramp) would have to be reconfigured to accommodate these planes. The larger a plane’s wingspan is, the less planes an airport terminal can fit at one time. If an airport has to redesign its terminal to fit more planes, guess who pays for that — the airline passenger.
Once you make it from the train station to the airport, (keeping in mind you’re still inside the pod) you sit and wait for your pod to be collected and taken to the place where it will be attached to the wings along with the other pods. It just seems like a very time consuming process, before you even take to the skies. Then we have to remember it happens again once you land. Back on the train tracks, to the train station, where you finally collect your bags. Train stations would become the new hubs where people would have to rent cars, which would also require a lot of changes to accommodate.
You’ve got to hand it to the Swiss though. Their concept of attaching aircraft fuselages in modular form under the wing of a plane is bold. They even have some tried-and true experience in aircraft design, in some very successful private planes by a company called Pilatus. I see this concept more as an example of a “look what we can do” than “we should do this.” I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, it’s just completely unrealistic. If we were to actually do this, I’d put my money on it taking thirty years to get it all implemented, and that’s if we start of it today. And by then, we’ll each have our own solar-powered flying cars. Maybe.
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