FIA Connect 2020: Top Aviation Executives Outline Future of Commercial Airliner Technology

Executives from Air Lease Corp., Embraer and Emirates joined a webinar as part of the Farnborough International Airshow's FIA Connect 2020 to discuss the future of commercial airliners, pictured here, is Embraer's E-190 E2 , one of the most recent regional airliners to enter into commercial service. Photo: Embraer

A panel of experts from Air Lease Corp., Embraer and Emirates explained what they believe could be realized technologically within the next generation of commercial airliners during the July 22 “Commercial Aircraft: The Next Generation” webinar hosted by Flight Global as part of the Farnborough International Airshow’s week-long FIA Connect 2020 series.

The panel featured some of the leading trending topics being discussed in commercial aviation circles today, including COVID-19’s impact on airline traffic, adjusted demand for aircraft production and how the 737 MAX will change aircraft certification scrutiny and regulation moving forward. Beyond these near term topics, there was also some discussion of what technologies could be incorporated into the next generation of commercial airliners, such as advancements in engine propulsion and interior innovation.

Emirates President Tim Clark said that he does not see many changes coming to commercial airliner technology within the next few years.

“In the short term, frankly I don’t see too much change. I see less players, and I see a risk averse nature of boards and shareholders in both the manufacturing and the airline community, I think we have to live with that,” Clark said.

As the global supply chain continues to absorb the shock of COVID-19, that has changed the commercial side of the aviation industry’s focus from making technological advances to surviving the current environment and preparing for the future. Both Clark and co-panelist Steve Udvar Hazy, executive chairman of the board for Air Lease Corp., believe that the airline industry will need to show at least another three to four years of stabilization before manufacturers can start introducing next generation concepts because the current demand simply is not there for them.

“I always remain optimistic that we have the capability, we have the creativity, we have the intellectual powers to come and address and produce aircraft that in 50 years’ time will shock and stun us,” Clark said. “I really believe, give it three or four years - let’s have a look at how we go about dealing with the environmental aspect, which is a really good thing to happen to all of us because it’s making us really think hard about what we need to do.”

Boeing’s New Mid-Market Airplane (NMA) was also a topic featured on the panel. The NMA was a next generation mid range airplane that the company had been rumored to be developing as a replacement to the 757 and a competitor to the Airbus A321XLR for several years before shelving the program in January to focus on returning the 737 MAX to service.

“We were ready to sign for 100 of them,” Udvar Hazy said, who also noted that he believes COVID-19 has introduced the “greatest step change in production outlook in the last 30 years.”

Udvar Hazy’s Air Lease Corp. provides leasing services for a total of 111 commercial airlines, most of whom operate Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer aircraft. However, the executive believes that industry disruption will come from outside of the traditional names and instead be generated by newcomers.

“I think the disruption in design concepts is not going to come from Airbus and Boeing. I think it’s going to come from smaller innovative players,” he said.

Engine propulsion advancements are an area where Udvar Hazy said he sees limited expansion in the near term as well. He compared the impact Tesla has had on the automotive industry, as a way to envision how the next generation of commercial airliner technology could be disrupted by a newcomer.

“Current engine technology cannot be anymore pushed into double digit gains. I think this last round of turbo fan technology – unless you go to an ultra fan concept – there’s no way to get double digit fuel gains. The other problem I see is when you increase the capital costs of these airplanes substantially; it offsets the gains on fuel burn. If you can achieve a 10 percent fuel burn advantage, but the airplane is 40 percent more expensive than the airplane it is replacing: you lose the economics of that fuel burn advantage. I’m looking forward to disruptors that will come up with new concepts which the OEMs can then latch onto,” Udvar Hazy said.

When considering what the next generation single aisle airliner could look like, Udvar Hazy said that some improvements to fuselage designs such as increasing aisle width and improving the onboarding and off boarding process could help to create a more user friendly passenger experience.

Arjan Meijer, who was appointed president and CEO of Embraer Commercial Aviation June 16 after the Brazilian manufacturer’s former chief executive left the position to take over as president and CEO of GE Aviation. Meijer said that Embraer is “focused on cash” and is currently in a good financial position. He also pointed out the current high utilization rates of Embraer’s regional jets as international flying has been limited by border restrictions.

“Our segment is more in demand than ever if you look at the airlines around the world, they’re using E-jets, E-jets, were parked a lot less than narrow bodies and if you look today at how many E-jets are flying in China in Europe, in Africa and North America – they’re all coming back,” Meijer said.

The latest generation of Embraer’s regional airliner, the E2, started flying in April 2018, just two years prior to the outbreak of the global pandemic, and Meijer said he continues to see a bright future for its performance. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on aircraft demand, Meijer said that the company is still keeping innovation in focus for the near future, although the groundbreaking technologies such as electric hybrid propulsion will be limited to smaller scale aircraft.

“The EmbraerX side is a branch within Embraer who is focused on innovation and disruptive technologies,” Meijer said. “We’re working with Uber on Uber Elevate with a small vehicle on electricity but I think those kind of technologies are a long shot to get those on narrow body aircraft.”

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