Formation Flights Could Revolutionise Transatlantic Travel

Over the year, we’ve heard many innovative ideas to reduce the carbon footprint of the aviation industry. From recycled jet fuel to increased tax to opting for less air travel. But there’s a well-know idea which is being newly reviewed in the commercial aviation world: formation flying.

Airbus will test formation flying in 2020 for its fuel efficiency. Photo: Airbus

Airbus’ commercial testing

Formation flying has been around for many years. It was first developed in World War One as a strategy for attacking enemy territory. These days, we also commonly see formation flying as part of air show demonstrations. But now this flying technique could be used for more than just a creative aesthetic.

Airbus is now using it to develop a cleaner carbon footprint. In 2020, Airbus will follow as closely as 1.5 NM behind a customer airline A350-900 flight. It will use a test A350-1000 on a transatlantic route, testing whether formation flying is more fuel-efficient and reliable.

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How does formation flying work?

A recent working paper presented by the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations and the International Civil Aviation Organization discussed the principles of formation flying for commercial aviation.

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The strategy works in the same way as birds flying in a flock. The airplane behind the leading aircraft will travel off the residual slipstream, meaning that it will use less force to manage induced drag, therefore less fuel. The working paper stated:

“The principle relies on harvesting a part of the energy from the wake vortex generated by a leading aircraft, by actually surfing it…Thus, positioning a trailing aircraft in a right way in the area where the vortex pushes air upward enables the trailing aircraft to save over 10% fuel.”

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Airbus will fly an A350-1000 behind an A350-900 to test fuel efficiency. Photo: Airbus

Theoretically, the idea sounds worth testing but how much would it actually reduce the aviation industry’s dire environmental impact?

Would this really have an impact?

On the surface, a 10% reduction in fuel emissions looks great. It means fewer harmful gases being pumped into the atmosphere and long-haul flights will be more profitable for airlines, operating with a reduced fuel cost.

However, how much of a difference is 10% really? According to this interactive article by The Guardian, a transatlantic flight from JFK New York to London Heathrow produces an estimated 986kg of CO2. That’s more than people produce per year in 56 countries around the globe, including the majority of countries on the African continent.

What’s more, flying in formation sees more aircraft in the skies at the same time. This could lead to a knock-on effect where more condensed airline schedules are able to accommodate even more routes. That would be more services and carbon emissions, not less.

Is formation flying just a bandage on the world’s environmental wounds?

That said, whilst it doesn’t discourage people from choosing air travel the strategy still works with the CO2 problem. If people are going to fly, then it might as well be as environmentally friendly as possible. Reduced jet emissions will help the aviation industry manage its footprint.

But it could be some time before commercial formation flying services go ahead. There’s a lot of checks that need to be done to ensure standardization, viability, and crucially safety.

Is it safe?

What are the concerns with commercial formation flying? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The working paper suggests that formation flying is indeed safe. It said:

“Whilst wake turbulence is commonly considered as a threat for commercial airplanes, this concept aims at taking benefit from the energy contained in trailing vortices, without compromising safety (which is paramount). “

However, there is a lack of documentation on exactly what could go wrong. The document reported that cruise control would not be affected by the new system of flying. However, there are certain alarm bells that begin to ring when imagining multiple trails of passenger-laden aircraft flying for many hours so closely behind each other. It goes without saying that the margin for error in this formation is severely reduced and a chain reaction more likely to occur.

We reached out to Airbus for comment on the safety of the practice and its future plans, but it was unavailable for comment at the time of publication.

Do you see a reliable future for formation flying? Let us know in the comments.

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Richard Allison

Could this be used for instance on project sunrise flights for instance a 787 follows a aircraft that goes to hong Kong the changes to qf1 at Singapore. This could mean a higher cabin density, cheaper/smaller aircraft and cheaper tickets.

JFP

Cheaper tickets? *Never!*

Peter

Besides wake turbulence, I would imagine that flying that closely behind a previous aircraft will bring a danger of ingestion of fumes from the engines of the leader aircraft into the cabin of the follower aircraft…

Blair

Flying in close proximity to another aircraft is inherently dangerous. That was true in World War 2 as it is today in air shows.

Javed

Would flying so close behind a large jet trigger the Travel Collision Avoidance System (TCAS)? While there is a wake vortex separation minima for each aircraft type during take off/landing, is there a similar requirement during flight?

Matt

Yes and yes.

JCL

Wake turbulence concerns me. A few years ago aboard an American Airlines Chicago-to-London flight (a 767), the aircraft suddenly began yawing and then shaking. I looked out the window and saw a clear sky. It was not clear air turbulence because we did not drop; we simply swayed and shook. What seemed to be a long time passed before we resumed our smooth flight. (I am an Air Force veteran, having flown numerous hours on C-130s, C-135s so rough flying is not scary to me.) The pilot came on the intercom and said (I can’t remember the exact words), “Sorry.… Read more »

Stephen787

And what about differing aircraft speeds and volume – an a321 vs an a380? Not to mention that formation flying requires many hours of practice between pilots working together rather than random aircraft flying together by chance.

Nate

I highly doubt that “flying in formation sees more aircraft in the skies at the same time”. There are plenty of limiting factors to the number of daily flights but “space available” at 30,000ft +/- doesn’t seem like the one holding airlines back.

Don

When you say “That’s more than people produce per year in 56 countries around the globe, including the majority of countries on the African continent.” I believe you mean “That’s more per capita per year than In 56 countries…”

Matt

This has as big a chance of happening as the end of the world predicted in 12 years. 0% chance.

Miguel Pesto

This is not a new idea. The United States Air Force investigated and flew this idea several years ago, and freight haulers have flown the formations also.

GE Whitney

Military crews are trained for it. Commercial crews are not. And tend to have less flight time in general.

J H

From a commercial former part 121 pilot (airline). There is indeed evidence pointing to this saving a marginal amount of fuel, the safety concern is way above the benefits. Most airline windows you have to contort and some you can’t make it – to look to the one side. Think about the level of precision. The front plane makes a small change, but it is a big change by the time it gets to rear aircraft. GPS precision is not of the level that it would remain uncompromised. The intense level of monitoring and corrections could cause some serious issues.… Read more »

Kevin A

Sounds good, but a bad idea for many reasons, inherently unsafe. You also mention the ‘aviation industries dire environmental impact’. Are you, or other aviation journalists, aware that the biggest user of aviation fuel in the world is not the airlines, but the US military! They are the biggest polluters of the airwaves.

Nate Dogg

Don’t exaggerate. There are 8000 flights into and out of the UK alone per day. To suggest that the US military uses more aviation fuel than all the commercial airlines in the world is a totally knob-headed suggestion. They don’t even use ANYTHING close to the UK figure daily!!

James VanMeter

Flying in “formation” can cover a multitude of scenarios. Here we are not talking about what the Blue Angels or Air Force Thunderbirds do at sir shows some 2-4 feet separation. But per the article 1.5 miles in trail (1.5NM, one and s half nautical miles). The Air Force has flown large transport aircraft in this fashion for years. TCAS and other instrumentation can be modified for this type of flying. I can’t really see it happening, but not a technically challenging hurdle to overcome.

GE Whitney

I agree. But I don’t see technology as the problem. Training would be the problem, from finding enough ex-military pilots to conduct it, to developing courses acceptable to all airlines, to updating type certifications. And that doesn’t address the inevitable cases of good pilots who simply are unable to master formation flying.

Richard j Kelly

This paragraph is very very unclear, I only figured out what it meant by reference to the linked article “However, how much of a difference is 10% really? According to this interactive article by The Guardian, a transatlantic flight from JFK New York to London Heathrow produces an estimated 986kg of CO2. That’s more than people produce per year in 56 countries around the globe, including the majority of countries on the African continent.” What it means to say is that a transatlantic flight generates 986 kg of CO2 PER PERSON, which is more than a typical PERSON generates from… Read more »

Bill Phillips (Delta Air Lines, retired)

Current FAA regs mandate a five mile spacing between large aircraft to avoid wake turbulence. Has Airbus magically eliminated wake turbulence? I’ve been caught inadvertently in the wake of an airliner many times and it will toss the trailing aircraft around like a toy.

John

Off the top of my head, I have 3 reasons why this won’t work. 1) I’ve never seen a wingman have more fuel than the leader because of more frequent throttle movement in my experience, 2) in order to get some benefit from the lead aircraft, it seems the trailer would have to fly in the leader’s disturbed air. People haulers call that turbulence, and they avoid it like the plague. 3) Goose died from jetwash in Top Gun
.
.

nick

That will be great. Just don’t plan to use the bathroom…ever, in flight. Wake turbulence is severe, unpredictable and NO airline will allow you to leave your seat while in trail. Another wonderful suggestion by people who have NO aviation experience. This was conceived by accountants looking to save money. Remember the 737 Max? Same people.

30 year airline captain.

GE Whitney

An interesting idea. But neither safe nor practical. Both flight crews would need roughly the same skill level. I don’t see that happening given that carriers don’t coordinate with each other when they rotate crews. Training enough pilots to handle the basics is already a problem. Many ex-military pilots have experience formation flying. But finding enough to teach it would be another problem. And what organization would have the knowledge to properly license them?

Gerry Stumpe

Flying the big jets in close formation while sometimes militarily necessary is stressful and demanding. It also makes for a bumpy ride. We would space out as soon as possible. Flying airliners in close formation is absurd and unsafe, as they will soon find out.

TonytTDK

There’s an obvious tradeoff discussion between savings & safety.? 10% savings on fuel is a REALLY worthwhile achievement in both cost savings & carbon footprint……. BUT, it must Not be allowed to compromise safety. Perhaps a ‘big wing’ travelling in one direction, could be given additional airspace above & below, to allow aircraft to safely beak formation up or downwards if necessary.? Additionally, I would imagine that there would be a maximum ‘spread’ of aircraft which was practicable anyway, before an airplane effectively just got blocked up.? Surely it’d be possible to have software which would be able to quickly… Read more »