Friday, June 06, 2008

OLD AIR TECHNOLOGY BEING REVIVED

KAI RYSSDAL, MARKETPLACE : Aviation's not a fun business to be in right now. . . But a Canadian train company is seeing some opportunities . . . a train company -- Bombardier. It also happens to be the world's number three producer of commercial planes. Today it announced quarterly profit more than tripled. The company said rising aircraft orders helped those numbers.

But many of the planes that're selling best today were much more common years ago than they are now.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: The morning rush hour is just dying down at Westchester County Airport, 20 miles north of New York City. There are still several small planes waiting to depart, listening for instructions from the control tower. . . One of the planes, destined for Boston, is a turboprop with two propellers. The pilot climbs aboard, starts the engine and sends a deafening noise through the air.

Over the past 10 years, airlines have been replacing propeller planes with small regional jets. Jets offer a faster, quieter and less bumpy ride.

John Starace is Westchester County Airport's operations manager. He says most fliers prefer the sturdy look and feel of a small jet. Some quail when they spot propellers instead.

John Starace: We've had a few people that have walked out and they look and they look at their spouse and they say "No, no, I'm not getting on that plane. You mean I'm going on that?!" and then they get a little peaky, they get a little pale, maybe they want to faint.

No one's likely to faint at the sight of the latest turboprops. They're bigger for one thing. Most regional jets carry between 40 to 100 people. These new turboprops carry more than 70 passengers.

Continental put 74-seat turboprops on various short routes out of Newark this year. David Kinzelman heads corporate development for Continental. He says there was good reason to replace their regional jets…

David Kinzelman: I think per seat, we're probably saving 30 percent.. . .

Canadian firm Bombardier is one of two companies left in the world that still makes turboprops. It manufactures the Q400 model that Continental flies. In 2006, airlines around the world ordered 24 of the planes. Last year, they ordered nearly four times that number.

GUARDIAN, UK Germany is producing zeppelins again. More than 70 years after the infamous Hindenburg disaster, its latest airship was gently guided out of the hangar doors last month to make its maiden test flight. . . The appeal is of the airship is easy to grasp. . . They are also quiet and fly at low altitude, at around 4,000ft compared with 35,000ft, further lessening their environmental impact. Although they are relatively slow, typically traveling at 125 mph - as quick as a high-speed train, but still needing about 43 hours to cross the Atlantic - most need no runway and could be deployed without need for further airport expansion.

One British company, SkyCat, is even floating the idea that airships could take off from the reservoirs bordering Heathrow airport. Airships appeal, moreover, to romantic travelers who see something glamorous in their more stately form of travel. . .

The NT uses "vectored thrust", which is in principle the same ability to direct its thrust in much the same way as a Harrier jump jet. This is important, because one thing holding the airship back is it vulnerability to wind, especially gusts. Most traditional airships need a dozen people to tie it to a mast; the NT, just three. . .

Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defence manufacturer, has been secretly testing the crewed hybrid P-791 that marries the buoyancy of an airship with the aerodynamics of an aeroplane. Deep in development in California is the Aeroscraft, another hybrid that touts itself as a sky yacht and looks a lot like Thunderbird 2 from the old TV show. . .

The trouble though with the buzz of a zeppelin revival is a simple one: carrying capacity. The Zeppelin NT has a passenger capacity of just 12, plus two crew. The Aeroscraft, more ambitious offering, could be adapted to manage anything up to 180. (A 747 carries about 460 people.)