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Airbus Wants To Fly 2 Planes In Extra-Close Formation, Like Geese, To Save Energy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, thousands of planes are in the sky carrying people home for Thanksgiving. Now imagine if those planes were flying in a V shape, like migrating geese. This idea inspired Airbus to suggest flying two planes in extra close formation as a way to save energy. The company says it's going to try it as a demonstration project.

Andy Pasztor reported on this for The Wall Street Journal, and he's with us now. Hi.

ANDY PASZTOR: Hello there.

SHAPIRO: What does demonstration project mean? What is Airbus actually going to do?

PASZTOR: So this is an interesting new idea with a potentially significant payoff. The idea is to fly these two planes in tandem, one below the other, very close - probably only a couple of hundred feet, maybe closer - and just behind the leading aircraft. And the leading aircraft will create a downdraft and smooth air, which will allow the following aircraft to reduce engine power, emissions, save money.

SHAPIRO: By about how much?

PASZTOR: Their aim is between 5 and 10% fuel savings on a long oceanic flight, so across the Atlantic, across the Pacific. That sounds to the average listener, perhaps, not as a truly significant savings. But indeed it is. At most, new engines give you about a 10% or 15% savings when you put them on a new aircraft. So therefore, this would be a significant result if it works.

SHAPIRO: I don't know anything about flying airplanes, but being that close over a long-haul flight sounds dangerous. Is there any risk here?

PASZTOR: Well, this actually feeds into another initiative that both Airbus and Boeing and other aircraft-makers are pursuing, and that is more automated cockpits, which are able to do more sophisticated maneuvers and therefore fly much closer to other aircraft at relatively the same altitude without problems. I would say that this is an interesting idea because the technology currently exists to fly that close. U.S. Air Force tankers do that with planes that they're filling up with fuel - not for thousands of miles, but certainly for short periods.

So this is a question of more whether the techniques work rather than new technology. The technology exists to do this. The question is whether the payoff will be significant enough to entice airlines to use it more widely.

SHAPIRO: We've seen military aircraft do this for short distances. What changes when we're talking about flights across an ocean for perhaps thousands of miles?

PASZTOR: You have to have much precise navigation and flight control systems. You have to make sure the air traffic controllers are aware of what you're doing. And of course, there are storms, there are headwinds, there are all sorts of things that can occur on a long-distance flight. In theory, it's not that much different. In practice, of course, it could require some significant software changes in cockpits, teaching pilots how to use some of the automated systems. I mean, it's not that simple, as you say. But in theory, there's not much difference between what Air Force planes do currently.

SHAPIRO: So this demonstration project is just looking at two planes flying in tandem. Could you imagine a day in the future where it looks like a flock of geese, a big V in the air of Airbus airplanes?

PASZTOR: Well, I think a lot of safety experts I've talked to and others think that's much further away. This is just the beginning. If it works with two, that could get some widespread use. And then, of course, they'll try to extend it. But, I mean, I think for now, that's not likely in the next, you know, two decades, let's say.

SHAPIRO: Andy Pastor is a Wall Street Journal reporter and we reached him on Skype.

Thanks for speaking with us.

PASZTOR: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES', "FLYING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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