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.
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.