Since time immemorial humans have always had the urge to make things bigger. Quotes like “Bigger the Better” and “More the Merrier” have been around for generations, in one form or the other. Throughout the course of human history we have had some fabulous outcomes and significant scientific advancements all because of it, be it the Saturn V rockets that carried men to the moon or the Antonov-225 that could take an entire spacecraft on its back. It is truly amazing to see how far we have come since the first 800 or so feet flown by Wilbur, from building wooden aeroplanes to making planes as big as a football field in less than a century.
Sadly, it turns out that bigger is not always better for the aerospace industry especially in the long run. For example, apart from being truly enormous in size these two marvels of technology also have one other thing in common, they are both things of the past, marvellous equipment no longer in use mainly due to extremely high operating and maintenance cost. With 3 E’s ( equity, environment, and economics) becoming the mantra of the industry being big is no longer considered as being better.
It is not just these large aircraft and rockets that have got the axe, aircraft once hailed as the queen of the skies can barely roll out of the production line. Customers have been moving away from four-engine widebody aircraft and towards more efficient twin-engine planes with lower operating costs at an alarming rate. The much celebrated Airbus A-380 may also be headed for early retirement, thanks to a near-total lack of interest in the world’s largest jet. With zero new orders for A-380 in the year 2016 and Boeing considering the idea of halting the production of one of the most prolific and long-lived aircraft families in history. We are forced to wonder when and where did things start falling apart? To do so, we need to look at the two major aspects namely, the technological factor and the socio-economic factor.
Let us first take a look at the socio-economic factor leading to their demise. Large airliners are built to do a specific task, i.e. ferry massive amounts of passenger or cargo across a great distance. But their enormous size and weight imply that they can only be operated at certain airports and be used to fly only a limited no. Of routes. On top of that, they have high operational cost reducing their frequency, which ultimately leads to scheduling issues and lack of passenger comfort. In an era of cut-throat competition, it is a fatal flaw which cannot be overlooked. While in the bygone era with a limited amount of option and centralized structure it might have been a good idea to fly from one major hub to another, it is no longer the case. People want more options, be it in terms of scheduling or destinations, a desire that the newer twin-engine airliners can easily fulfil. That might be the reason that though sales of 4-engine large planes are on a decline, order books of twin-engine airliners like 777, 787 or the 350 show no sign of recession. A new generation of twin-engine aircraft has the range and endurance of their mammoth cousins providing the same degree of passenger comfort and safety at a much lower operational and maintenance cost. While they do not offer as much seating capacity, they offer a greater amount of scheduling and route options resulting in higher profits and occupancy percentage.
All this made possible due to rapid strides in aircraft engine technology in the form of enhanced engine reliability and efficiency, along with advancements in manufacturing and design techniques. Making this aircraft way more affordable and easy to operate. They are also far well suited to fall well under the airport noise regulations and other environmental regulations. One of the key reason the 747 had 4 engines was that ETOPS ( Extended-range operation with twin-engine) did not permit twin-engine aircraft to carry out trans-Atlantic flights, citing engine reliability and passenger safety concern. This though is no longer an issue, with aircraft like the 787 achieving an ETOPS rating of 330 minutes there is hardly anywhere the aircraft cannot fly.
As sad as it may sound there is a very distinct possibility that the queen might no longer be with us and we might have future without mammoth airliners. A future where the skies are ruled by twin-engine aircraft, a future where the history of David and Goliath would repeat itself.