Sunday, May 21, 2006

Jetblast from the Past: Soviet Espionage in the Commercial Aircraft Industry!

Vickers, an affiliate of the British Aircraft Corporation, began design and production of a new narrowbody airliner in response to the entry into commercial service of the first successful large-scale jet aircraft, the Boeing 707, in 1958. While the Boeing 707 proved valuable for transcontinental service on airlines such as Pan Am and American Airlines, the plane's design at the time proved problematic for British Airways predecessor BOAC. The plane required long runways due to insufficient power for quick takeoffs, had trouble taking off in conditions of low air density, and required substantial ground support to power the plane for loading operations and to even start its engines. These caveats to B707 operation precluded its use on many of BOACs routes that served high altitude airports and shorter runways. Vickers' solution was the VC-10, which entered commercial service in 1965.

The plane was regarded, and still is by many, as one of the most graceful jet designs to enter commercial airline service. Powered by four Rolls Royce engines and an improved wing design aimed at increasing takeoff ability, the plane exhibited enhanced performance over the Boeing 707 (which also had four engines, which were wing-mounted). These engines were tail-mounted in pairs, a novel arrangement that reduced cabin noise and gave the plane its highly distinguished look. Only 54 of the planes were built, and production ended in 1970. The better operating economics of the by then-popular McDonell Douglas DC8 and Boeing 707 encouraged airports to extend runways as these airplane models were improved in the 1960s, such that the demand for continued production of the VC-10 was no longer apparent.

Interestingly, the Soviet company Ilyushin developed a new airliner at about the same time as the VC-10 project. The Il-62 (pictured at the right), launched into commercial service in 1967, bore a striking resemblance to the VC-10, including the paired T-tail mounted powerplants and novel wing design. The two aircraft are difficult to distinguish except for the Il-62's more abrupt lines of the tail design and the wings as viewed from above. Also, the Il-62 was designed specifically for long-range operations and featured a more traditional flight deck compared to that of the VC-10.

Was the similar design of the Il-62 an indication of Soviet industrial espionage? Many at the time of the launch of Ilyushin's plane believed so. Perhaps this argument was bolstered by the dramatic similarities between another pair of aircraft under development at the time, the supersonic British/French Aerospeciale Concorde and the Soviet Tupolev Tu-144. In this case, such espionage was proven when French authorities discovered an official of Soviet airline Aeroflot, Sergei Pavlov, receiving tire scrapings from a Concorde plane parked at a Paris airport. In the end, French officials found copies of blueprints of the Concorde's landing gear in Pavlov's suitcase in 1965. For a time, French authorities "cooperated" with the Soviet Union, providing experimental substances and materials (such as for the engineering of new tires) for the Soviet company to experiment with in the design of the -144. As it turns out, this assistance was actually aimed to hamper Tupolev's progress in designing their supersonic aircraft, as these materials had absolutely no possible use for aircraft development! The fiasco resulted in Sergei Pavlov's deportation from France and his subsequent promotion to Deputy Minister for Civil Aviation in the Soviet Union, for a "job well done".

The Tu-144 project experienced a huge blow as a plane crashed in a famously disastrous flight at the 1973 Paris Airshow, resulting from the mid-air breakup of the aircraft as it experienced a stall during a rapid evasive maneuver.

So who had the last laugh? The Tu-144 entered commercial service in the 1970s, but continuing operation problems grounded regularly scheduled flights with Aeroflot in 1978. Only 16 of the planes were built. In contrast, the British/French Aerospeciale/BAC Concorde remained in service with Air France and British Airways until 2003, following an Air France crash near Paris in the summer of 2000.

As for the Il-62, the Soviets proved more successful, as production of the plane continued through the early 1990s, with a total of approximately 250 aircraft built. Over 100 still remain in commercial service to this day. Unfortunately for Vickers, their plane ceased production only five years after its introduction into civil aviation. The Royal Air Force has since acquired a number of these planes, and they continue to operate as airborne refeuling aircraft.

As a note of interest, Vickers developed a number of "concept" planes that, thankfully, were never produced. One was for a jumbo jet that consisted of three separate fuselages attached to the wing. One can only imagine how an airport would handle the passenger loading of such an aircraft!!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Priceline Convert

Although I've known about Priceline for years, I've always been too timid to book a flight or hotel with the website for fear that I would become committed to a flight I didn't want or sequestered in a hotel filled with rats and rapists. But at Kristen's (my roommate) urging--and with her support--I used Priceline to find a last-minute hotel in Washington DC. To my surprise, I was able to specify the location and the star-level of the hotel. I selected three stars in DuPont/Woodley, figuring that even a worst case return couldn't be that bad. Having found nothing in a decent section of DC for less than $250.00 on Orbitz and Travelocity, I decided to bid $85.00. To my surprise, I got an immediate return, in under a minute, that not only matched my price but also placed me in a four, rather than three, star hotel. Total cost with taxes: a little over 100 bucks a night. Brimming with confidence, I used Priceline again to book a room in Eugene, Oregon. This time I snagged a fifty-five dollar room at a Hilton--forty dollars less than most of the other options I turned up on competing sites.

Am I giving Priceline my ringing endorsement? For hotels, yes--as long as you're careful about selecting star-level and location. For flights, I'm not so certain. My impression is people usually get stuck with middle seats and have difficulty rebooking when a travel glitch occurs. And, of course, all purchases are non-refundable, so if you're someone who frequently gets sick, avoid this option like the plague.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Baggage tracking Logan!!

It was announced this week that MASSPORT, the managing organization for Boston Logan International Airport, has contracted Boston Engineering to participate in a pilot program for improved baggage tracking. The new system uses radiofrequency identification technology (RFID) to simultaneously "tag" a passenger and his or her luggage at the time of check-in at the kiosk. The system is aimed at improving the tracking of both the tag and passenger throughout the journey from departure, through connection, and to destination.

The project is a collaboration between Boston Engineering and Virginia-based company Inkode, which developed the chipless technology it calls CRIS (Chipless Remote Identification System). Boston Engineering will apply this technology for the development of the baggage handling system. Because it is "chipless", the system is not susceptible to inactivation or interference by static electricity generated by baggage conveyors or by X-rays necessary for baggage screening.

Will the system be a success? With over 30 million pieces of baggage lost every year, an improvement to current methods of baggage handling is certainly welcome. Let's just see how quickly Logan will fuck it up.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

End of Two Eras...

A Boeing employee photographs the last 717 produced as it is towed from
the manufacturing plant's hanger in Long Beach, CA on April 20, 2006.

This is somewhat old news, but interesting nevertheless...

Boeing ended production of the 717-200 twinjet at the end of April when it rolled out its 156th airplane. The aircraft, developed in the late 1990s and first delivered in 1999 to its launch customer Airtran, was an updated design based on the highly successful DC-9 and successor MD-80 series of aircraft, which dominated the 100-seat market in the United States and had been used by virtually every major U.S. air carrier at one time or another since the mid 1960s (the MD-80s came in the 1980s as the DC-9 ended production early in that decade). Unfortunately, Boeing's 717 proved unpopular in today's increasingly competitive commercial aircraft market, as the similar capacity Boeing 737 and smaller Embraer and Airbus jets proved more economically attractive for today's airlines. Despite its lower operating costs, impressive fuel economy, and quick turnaround capabilites at the gate, sales of the plane lagged as only a few airlines, including Airtran, Midwest, and now-defunct TWA agreed to support the 717 program.

Despite the ultimate failure of the 717, the plane has proven popular with travelers and pilots. Customers have enjoyed the 2 seat - aisle - 3 seat layout of the coach cabin, which has been used in DC-9s (still kicking around for Northwest Airlines after 30 years of use) and MD-80s (including American's MD-82s/-83s and Delta's MD-88s) and eliminates half of the "dreaded middle seats" that passengers hate (including me). Pilots have commented on the plane's remarkable handling and have found the plane rather easy to fly, as the flight deck was substantially simplified (replacing multiple system gauges with an all-electronic computerized flight console) to reduce visual overload. However, the cockpit has no commonality with Boeing's other plane designs, a feature that ultimately ran the 717 program into the ground (in contrast, Boeing's multiple "next generation" 737 models and Airbus's A318, A319, A320, and A321 feature common flight decks to allow airlines to rate pilots for operation of all current production 737s or all Airbus A320 family aircraft). So, despite the lower operating costs of the 717, Airlines chose to sacrifice a little money in favor of operating more versatile aircraft.

The delivery of the last 717 also marked the end of commercial aircraft production in Southern California. Boeing's Long Beach aircraft facility, opened by Douglas Commercial in 1941, has produced over 15,000 airplanes, including Douglas DC8s, DC9s and DC10s, McDonnell Douglas (after the merger in the late 60s) MD-80s, MD-90s, and MD-11s, and, lastly, Boeing 717s after Boeing absorbed McDonnell Douglas in 1997. While the plant continues to manufacture military C-17 cargo planes, the future of the plant is in jeopardy as there are no remaining orders with the U.S. military for the C-17. Aircraft production would then end forever in Southern Caifornia (also home of the Lockheed corporation, which produced many commercial planes, including the massive L-1011 Tristar jet in the 1970s and 80s), once the epicenter of commercial aviation production in the United States.

Although it's sad to see Boeing close its doors at Long Beach, it's nice knowing that the planes produced there will still be flying for future decades. I'm a regular Airtran flyer, since the carrier operates nonstop service between Boston (where I live) and Newport News/Williamsburg in Virginia, where I grew up and where my parents still live. I've been very pleased with my flying experiences on the's one of the quietest planes I have ever ridden (the engines are rear-mounted, which keeps jet noise behind the passengers...what a concept!), the EasyFit overhead bins, which were introduced on the 717, feature among the largest per-passenger storage space among any airliner (except maybe for the 747), and the 2-aisle-3 layout assists in quick boarding and deboarding of the aircraft, allowing for faster airport turnarounds and decreasing passenger headaches...after all, the one thing on a passenger's mind is getting from point A to point B, not sitting in terminals waiting for 130 people to struggle off an aircraft. Oh...and one has to love the absense of the "middle seats" on the entire left side of the aircraft.

As for the employees at Boeing Long Beach, many have been transferred to C-17 production. The end of commercial aircraft manufacturing at Long Beach proved to be an emotional event, however, as all the employees who took part in making the aircraft signed the inside of the final 717's fuselage and slowly followed the aircraft, bedecked with commemorative banners, as it was pulled out of the hanger. Never again will a brand new plane take its ceremonious trip across Lakewood Blvd, located between the manufacturing plant and the flight test field, at the break of dawn.
As for the fate of the manufacturing building, which proudly displays a reminder of the plant's 60-year legacy with its classic neon "Fly DC Jets" sign, it was still uncertain as of the end of April.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Birth of Boeing 787 Commercial Service?

Boeing announced on Thursday, May 11, that it will deliver its first Boeing 787-900 jet to Air New Zealand at the end of 2010. The signing of the contract this week also converted Air New Zealand's original order for four 787-800 planes to four 787-900s, and also annouced the decision to supply the planes with Rolls-Royce powerplants, as opposed to GE engines that are also available on this model. The 787-900 is a slightly enlarged version of the -800, carrying 250-290 passengers on routes of up to 8,800 nautical miles.

The Boeing 787, originally developed as the 7E7, is essentially an updated model of the current midsize market workhorse, the 767, which entered service in the early 1980s. The double aisle widebody airliner, which has been released in three successive models, the -200, -300, and -400, has proven useful for flights requiring large capacity planes on both domestic and international routes. I myself have flown on the 767 on numerous occasions, including flights from Boston to Atlanta, as well as on a oddly short route between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Florida (it seemed that the boarding time was longer than the short 45-minute flight time in this aircraft). I'm happy to see that Boeing is developing significant improvements to the 767, including the largest windows of any commercial aircraft operating today, improved air circulation systems, roomier cabin conditions (including a spacious entrance "lounge", a significant improvement over the current cramped entry portal on planes today), and outstanding fuel economics.

Boeing's release of the 787 program is a welcomed reaction to the release of competitor Airbus's A-380 airplane, which features a 2-leveled cabin extending the full length of the plane (unlike the Boeing 747, which is double-decked at the front of the plane only) that is clearly designed for shuttling as many people as possible at a given time. In an age where Boeing experiences increasing competition from foreign manufacturers, including French-based Airbus and Brasilian Embraer, which is currently releasing larger-scaled jets to complement its highly successful commuter jets the E-135 and E-145, it is nice to see that Boeing is focusing on improving their currently successful planes for developing state-of-the-art jets that are principally aimed at enhancing the passenger experience and confort, rather than simply packing as many people onto a plane like sardines, as Airbus has chosen to do with the release of its monstrosity, the A-380.

Keep an eye on the future developments of the Boeing company. And, whenever your travel itinerary allows you to do so, continue to support those domestic airlines that feature American-made (Boeing) aircraft, such as Delta, Airtran, Southwest, and Continental, to name a few.