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Can a Triangle-Shaped Jet Cut Fuel Consumption in Half?

(Bloomberg Businessweek) —

Over a century of commercial aviation, from the Ford Trimotor in the 1920s to today’s Boeing Co. and Airbus SE jetliners, there’s been one constant: Airplanes are virtually always long tubes sporting wings with engines bolted on underneath and a tail stabilizer at the back. Inside there’s a similarly standard layout—one or two aisles flanked by rows of seats, notwithstanding occasional extravagances such as staircases or bars for premium-class passengers.

Startup JetZero Inc. is taking aim at that design with a radical proposition: a triangle-shaped aircraft resembling a giant manta ray in the sky, boasting a shorter fuselage that’s wide enough to contribute to the lift needed to keep the thing airborne. Gone is the tail, with two engines piggybacked onto the rear taking its place to provide both power and stability.

JetZero says its design has several advantages over traditional aircraft: It’s quieter, it’s more stable, and it uses interior space more efficiently, with a triangular cabin that has three aisles to ease bottlenecks during boarding. It’s also lighter, requiring engines no bigger than those on today’s single-aisle models. The startup says its so-called blended-wing aircraft could haul as many as 250 people—the capacity of a widebody jet such as Boeing’s 767—while burning half the fuel.

The basic concept dates back more than a century, when Germany’s Hugo Junkers patented a flying wing after realizing the fuselage and tail fin were just ballast that provided no lift. During World War II, the Luftwaffe built a few prototypes of a similarly shaped plane called the Horten Ho 229, but it never reached serial production. And the Pentagon has been flying the B-2 stealth bomber since 1997 and is preparing tests of a successor, the B-21.

Both Boeing and Airbus have studied futuristic concepts that nestle the cabin into the wing, but neither is in any hurry to introduce one. JetZero says it will begin test flights of a one-eighth-scale prototype in December, and it aims to build a full-scale version within four years. The reaction of the industry leaders “was ‘Not now,’” says Chief Executive Officer Tom O’Leary, a former Tesla Inc. sales executive and veteran of electric air taxi startup Beta Technologies. “Our reaction is ‘Now is the time.’ And we’re happy to pave the way.”

Airbus and Boeing have dominated the airliner market for decades, and breaking their duopoly is no small task. A few players such as Brazil’s Embraer SA have carved out niches with smaller models, but even Embraer employs a lot more people than JetZero’s 75. China has sought to break in with its Comac C919, and Russia has tried the same with the Sukhoi Superjet, but neither has yet to catch on. And after Bombardier Inc. was nearly bankrupted by the C-Series, a smaller alternative to the duopoly’s single-aisle workhorses, the Canadian company in 2017 handed it over to Airbus for $1.

Part of the difficulty stems from complex regulations that require as much as a decade for a plane to be certified, forcing companies to absorb steep development costs while booking little or no sales. That’s on top of the billions of dollars needed for assembly lines and a global constellation of suppliers. And airlines have grown accustomed to the simplicity of having just two primary vendors, which keeps a lid on training and maintenance expenses.

But like the auto industry, aviation is poised for radical change as airlines and manufacturers aim for carbon neutrality by 2050. The industry is abuzz with entrants seeking to redefine commercial flight, with startups such as Archer Aviation, Joby Aviation and Lilium introducing “air taxis,” small electric aircraft that are in trials.

Airbus is experimenting with hydrogen propulsion that might someday power a blended-wing jet. More than a decade ago, Boeing and NASA tested a scaled-down blended-wing prototype known as the X-48, but it never advanced to the commercial stage—and the engineers who led that effort now work at JetZero. What’s more, Airbus and Boeing have signaled they don’t plan to introduce any all-new jetliners before the mid-to-late 2030s, instead planning far less costly tweaks, such as adding new engines to existing models. “We’re entering a place in the market where there’s superhigh demand and zero supply,” O’Leary says.

JetZero has signed up powerful partners. It will get help designing and building its prototype from Northrop Grumman Corp., the maker of the B-2 and Virgin Galactic’s twin-hulled WhiteKnightTwo, a plane that takes paying customers into the stratosphere. Among big defense contractors, “Northrop Grumman is the most forward-looking and I think the most open to new ideas,” says Richard Aboulafia, managing director of consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory. “It seems a natural fit.”

The US Air Force has pledged $235 million to fast-track the effort. If all goes to plan, JetZero will begin working with regulators to certify a midsize airliner by the early 2030s. That passenger model could be followed by military cargo-hauling and aerial refueling versions, ultimately replacing a Boeing tanker in the Air Force lineup. Pentagon leaders, eager for technology that would give the US an edge over China, see the low noise profile and increased range of JetZero’s concept reaping rewards in battle. “There’s no time to waste,” Air Force Assistant Secretary Ravi Chaudhary said in announcing the support for the company in August.

There are plenty of potential roadblocks. Government backing, Aboulafia reckons, will cover only about half the costs of the bigger prototype, so O’Leary’s team must find investors to make up the difference. And persuading airlines and the flying public to buck the status quo won’t be easy. JetZero’s unconventional cabin layout may not be to passengers’ taste, and airport infrastructure such as gangways and loading equipment are laid out to accommodate tubular aircraft.

O’Leary acknowledges that the industry is conservative and resists change, but he insists that once airlines and passengers see his plane in the air and understand the benefits of its radical design, they’ll quickly change their minds. The concept “has been tested on a scaled level and yet it’s not been built,” he says. “They need to see it at full scale, proving that there is this incredible reduction in fuel burn and emissions that can come from this airframe. To us, that’s everything.”

Read next: Plan to Debut Flying Taxis for Paris Olympics Faces Engine Setback

To contact the author of this story:
Julie Johnsson in Chicago at jjohnsson@bloomberg.net

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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