Formation Flying With Airliners to Cut Fuel Costs

With rising fuel prices and falling profits, the airline industry is constantly searching for bold new ways to pinch a penny and boost efficiency. Most airlines have already cut back on planned cruise speeds to conserve fuel. But you can only slow down so far before induced drag begins to eat away at aircraft fuel efficiency. Stanford’s Dr. Ilan Kroo has a radical new solution: fly in formation.

Kroo’s research is nothing new. According to an article in The Economist, scientists have known that birds flying in formation expend less energy. Much like airplanes, vortices form at the wingtips of birds which curl upwards  – a phenomenon known as upwash. Birds flying in the upwash experience a notable reduction in drag, and require less thrust to maintain speed.

Could this the future of airline travel?

Could this be the future of air travel?

Dr. Kroo and his team applied these results to see what would happen if three airliners took off from three separate airports, rendezvoused over Utah, then continued in formation to London. They found  the jets would consume 15% less fuel under ideal conditions.

There are still a few issues to be resolved, most notably in the area of safety. Even with the proposed two to three miles of separation in formation, aircraft would still be uncomfortably close to one another – especially in instrument meteorological conditions and turbulence. Then there is the difficulty of scheduling flights to rendezvous on time.

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About the author
Pat Flannigan is a professional pilot and aviation blogger. He has been flying for fifteen years and is currently working as an airline pilot in the United States.

7 Replies to Formation Flying With Airliners to Cut Fuel Costs

  1. Sylvia says:

    That does make sense – but ugh, scheduling hell! We’d end up with one flight time a day and the airport packed.

  2. Jon Morby says:

    I thought this was an April fools joke for a minute …

    > with the proposed two to three miles of separation in formation

    How exactly would the upwash be an effect if you’re separated by 2 miles from your “formated” partner?

    But tbh I couldn’t imagine most of todays “passenger” pilots being skilled or capable enough to do this :(


    • According to the study’s theoretic models, you would still see some difference with two miles separation. I’d love to see some test results.

      I don’t think it’s a skill level problem for the pilots of passenger airliners. Formation flying, particularly at those distances, is not terribly difficult. Furthermore, many pilots at the majors came from a background of military aviation – with lots of formation flying behind them.

      The real problem lies in workload. With the sort of duty days pilots are required to work, you can’t reasonably expect them to maintain that level of concentration for long. I think a lot of the benefits of this research are a pipe dream, but very interesting nonetheless.

  3. Cliff says:

    But the advantage of formation flying is thet you can sync all the computers and then the crew in all but the lead aircraft could go to sleep. At shift change, another crew wakes up and takes the pole position.
    The only issue I can see with this is the problem of how to pass the yellow jersey around mid-air.


  4. jeff says:

    that has to be the stupidest most unsafe thing ive heard in aviation. i think the scientist should go to work for either bush or obama he would fit right in

  5. Reg says:

    Mythbusters on Discovery tackled this, and they found that the effective distance for savings was really flying almost tip to tip, which was not only dangerous, but of course very, very hard. They used aerobatics planes, but it’s a harebrained idea. No way flying 2 miles apart will give any significant savings in fuel. And at distance it’s still very, very dangerous with large aircraft. We want to keep people safe and far apart, on different flight levels, not flying in formation for disaster.

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