Plane Truth: Aviation's Real Impact on People and the Environment

Plane Truth: Aviation's Real Impact on People and the Environment

by Rose Bridger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745330327
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 10/08/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Rose Bridger works on environmental issues in the U.K. in the areas of policy, practical projects and community development. She has been a consultant for the local food sector and campaigned against air freight expansion for a number of years.

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The Future of Flight

The World's Busiest Airports

For many years, rivalry between airports to rank as the busiest in the world, handling the highest number of passengers, was a two-horse race between North America's two main hubs, Chicago O'Hare and Atlanta. O'Hare topped the list from its opening in 1962, but Atlanta began to catch up in the 1980s, and the two airports were in close competition until 1998, when Atlanta edged ahead. Atlanta has been the world's busiest passenger airport every year since, extending its lead over O'Hare. In 2011, it handled more than 92 million passengers.

Atlanta Airport is to the south of the city. Seen from above, the grey rectangle, delineated east-to-west by five parallel runways, dwarfs other urban features. O'Hare maintained the position of the world's second busiest passenger airport until 2009, when it was overtaken by Heathrow. But Heathrow has maintained its position as the world's busiest international airport, handling over 64 million international passengers in 2011. Atlanta is predominantly a domestic airport, handling flights between US destinations; 171 of its 199 gates are used for domestic traffic.

A successful campaign against a third runway curtailed further growth at Heathrow, but expansion plans lie dormant rather than dead. In 2012, British prime minster David Cameron broke a pre-election 'no ifs, no buts' pledge not to allow a third runway, setting up a commission to rule on the issue of Heathrow expansion. One of the options under consideration is a plan to increase the number of runways to four, entailing encroachment of the airport footprint over land to the west of the established site.

In 2010, Beijing Airport handled nearly 74 million passengers, overtaking Heathrow to take second place behind Atlanta. Beijing widened its lead over Heathrow in both 2011 and 2012. John D. Kasarda, a business professor at the University of Carolina and a prominent advocate of aviation expansion, contrasted the rapid construction of Beijing's third terminal with the stalled growth and protracted uncertainty over Heathrow. Beijing's new terminal was built from 'from raw ground' in the same time frame as the planning enquiry for Heathrow's Terminal 5. Kasarda acknowledges the role of autocratic government in the speed and scale of the expansion, specifically the aviation ministry with its doctrine 'Democracy sacrifices efficiency'. Fifteen villages were flattened and 10,000 residents were displaced with no compensation. There was no debate over plans for Beijing's second airport; not even the location was disclosed.

Aviation expansion in Dubai is even more ambitious. Dubai Airport is on course to match Atlanta's passenger numbers by 2018. In one phase of the expansion programme, for Concourse 2 and Terminal 3, Dubai Airport was reputedly the largest construction site in the world. Preparation of foundations for the site involved the excavation of 10 million cubic metres of earth. After the laying of the first basement slab, in November 2003, 2.4 million cubic metres of concrete and 450,000 tonnes of steel were used over the course of 693 days. Fifty-five tower cranes and 65 concrete truck mixers were in simultaneous use. Terminal 3 opened in October 2008, as the economic downturn began. It has been built for exclusive use by Emirates Airlines, the largest airline in the Middle East and Dubai's flag carrier, designated and wholly owned by the government. By the end of 2012, Dubai Airport had increased its passenger numbers by more than 28 per cent, to more than 52 million.

If Dubai's new airport, called Al Maktoum, is completed and operates at full capacity, with five parallel runways, it will outrank the city's older airport, and Atlanta, as the busiest passenger airport in the world. It is named after Emir Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, who ruled Dubai for 32 years until his death in 1990, Over 35 years ago, he allocated 140 sq. km for the new airport with a city, Dubai World Central, to be built around it. Al Maktoum Airport aims to handle 160 million passengers per year, and to become the world's biggest cargo airport, handling 12 million tonnes per year. This would be almost triple the volumes currently handled by Hong Kong, which overtook Memphis as the world's busiest cargo airport in 2010.

Two thousand tonnes of steel were used to build Al Maktoum's 'fuel farm', the fuel storage and distribution facility. Three cylindrical tanks can hold 9.5 million litres of jet fuel. This volume of liquid is comparable to the 10 million litres of water in the aquarium in Dubai Mall, one of the largest in the world, hosting 33,000 sea creatures, seen through the world's largest acrylic viewing panel. The fuel farm's fire-fighting facility can hold 6 million litres of water. Operations at Al Maktoum began on 21 June 2010 with the arrival of an Emirates Airlines Boeing 777 freighter, a cargo aircraft with a capacity of 105 tonnes.

In 2008, a symbol of Dubai's aviation dominance arrived in London, on a roundabout at the road entrance to Heathrow, near the tunnel running under the north runway. About 25 million people per year travel past the roundabout, making it a prime advertising site. A mesh of fences appeared, followed by hoardings with an advertising campaign for Emirates Airlines' Airbus A380 service. The first class service offers the ultimate luxury: private suites, lie-flat beds, massaging chairs, spacious bathrooms, two shower spas, a bar, lounge and flat-screen televisions with a choice of 1,200 channels. Behind the hoardings, the site was reinforced with 600 tonnes of concrete. On 24 July 2008, a model Emirates Airbus A380 was unveiled.

Emirates' model A380 is a third of the size of the real plane, which is the world's largest passenger plane. It has a wingspan of nearly 80 metres and is almost as long from nose to tail. The name of the airline is written in gold-coloured paint in English and Arabic along the fuselage and there is a stylised, wavy version of the black, red and green lines of the UAE flag on the tail. The model was made in Rancho Cucamonga, California, trucked to Ontario then flown to Heathrow in ten components, on board the world's largest plane, a Russian freighter, the Antonov-225. The components were too heavy to offload from the Antonov-225 with the usual winch crane, so a mechanised ramp was flown in from Germany.

The Supersonic Dead End

Before the model Airbus A380 appeared at the entrance to Heathrow, a 40 per cent scale model of a British Airways (BA) Concorde plane occupied the site. Concorde was the famous supersonic aircraft, capable of flying faster than the speed of sound, long and narrow with a distinctive pointed, drooping nose. When Concorde made its first flight in 1969, it symbolised the future of air travel. The British and French governments bankrolled its development, and in 1976 it began commercial service. Dignitaries, celebrities and company executives hurtled over the Atlantic Ocean, between Heathrow, Paris, New York and Washington, enjoying plush seating, gourmet meals and champagne. Concorde flew almost twice as high as a subsonic plane at 20,000 metres above sea level and over twice as fast. A flight from London to New York took just three and a half hours. The plinth supporting the model Concorde at the entrance to Heathrow boasted 'Arrive before you leave' as, with New York time being five hours behind London time, travellers appeared to gain an hour and a half.

Yet Concorde was a commercial failure, consigned to history in little over 30 years. No commercial purchasers emerged for the planes, so they were given to BA and Air France at zero cost. This distortion of the balance sheet underpinned these airlines' claims that Concorde operated with a profit. Concorde's high fuel consumption raised its operating costs. It needed to be heavier than a subsonic plane in order to be strong enough to withstand the high speed and altitude. The aircraft burned about 17 litres of fuel per passenger per 100 km, six and a half times more than a Boeing 747 model of the same period.

Unprecedented speed and luxury failed to attract the predicted number of passengers. There was capacity for 100 passengers, but the proportion of seats filled, referred to in the industry as the 'load factor', was frequently as low as 50 per cent. Concorde was even less popular with communities living under flightpaths. As the plane accelerated, it broke the sound barrier and emitted an unmistakable thunder-like sound, called a sonic boom.

Concorde's developers anticipated that there would be 1,500 supersonic aircraft in service by the year 2000. But just 20 Concorde planes were built, and only 14 entered commercial service. As the engines aged they were beset with technical problems. For each hour of flight, a Concorde was 20 times more likely to have an engine problem than a Boeing 747. Over the years, there were many incidences of tyres bursting, damaging the engines and fuel tanks.

On 25 July 2000, a Concorde taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris hit a piece of debris on the runway. This burst one of the plane's tyres, and shards of rubber from the tyre ruptured a fuel tank. The plane caught fire and crashed into a hotel. Everyone on board was killed: 100 passengers and nine crew, along with four people on the ground. Investigation by the French courts concluded that the cause of the accident was a small piece of metal on the runway, which had fallen off a Continental Airlines plane that took off minutes before the Concorde.

The accident hastened Concorde's demise. In 2003 the entire fleet was retired from service. Yet the grounded Concorde planes fascinate aviation enthusiasts, taking pride of place in airport viewing parks and aviation museums in France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The model Concorde that preceded the model Airbus A380 at Heathrow was dismantled and transported to the Brooklands Museum of aviation and transport in Surrey just south of London, where it was reassembled for display at the entrance.

Concorde turned out to be a technological dead end. Since the planes were grounded, supersonic flight has been confined to military and experimental purposes. Aerion, a US firm, is manufacturing supersonic luxury private jets for eight to twelve passengers, as luxurious and spacious as the most expensive subsonic private jets, with room to walk around, lie-flat beds, sofas and a shower. High fuel consumption remains an intractable problem, so the new jets are expected to appeal to the wealthiest niche market, able to afford the high operating cost. Design changes that might muffle the sonic boom include slender fuselages, a drag-reducing wing and a telescopic rod attached to the nose of the plane to disrupt sound waves. If noise reduction is insufficient to comply with regulations, the new jets might only fly at supersonic speeds over the ocean.

As supersonic flight shunted into the sidelines, the subsonic jet age continued and another giant plane, the Boeing 747, came to dominate the skies. The first test flight took place in 1969, the same year as Concorde's first flight. Commercial service began in 1970, and the 747 became the workhorse of long-haul, high-capacity flight, renowned worldwide as the 'Jumbo Jet'. By 2009, Boeing 747s had made 17 million flights and flown nearly 78 billion km, equivalent to travelling to the moon and back 100,000 times. Boeing 747 freighters, with a payload of up to 105 tonnes, provide more than half of the world's dedicated freighter capacity. Boeing 747s are still being manufactured, and are assembled in the same factory in Everett, Washington. The 747 was the world's largest passenger jet until April 2005, when the Airbus A380 made its maiden flight.

The A380 is outsized by the Antonov-225, the Russian freighter which transported Emirates Airlines' model A380 to Heathrow. It has a wingspan of just over 8 m, a distinctive appearance with two tailfins, and six engines. At its highest point, the tail, it stands over 18 m tall, about the height of a six-storey building. The Antonov-225 was built to carry Russia's Buran space shuttle on top, but as the Soviet Union collapsed, so did its space programme. The Buran programme was cancelled in 1988. After a single flight carrying the shuttle, the Antonov-225 was modified to carry outsized cargo. It has a maximum payload, or cargo capacity, of 250 tonnes, and in 2001 set a world cargo record, lifting four Ukrainian tanks, weighing 253 tonnes, to an altitude of over 2 km. The Antonov-225's inaugural commercial flight, in 2002, carried 216,000 ready meals from Germany to Oman for the US military.

Ever since, the giant plane has supported military and humanitarian operations and carried mundane payloads of heavyweight industrial equipment. Memphis Airport claimed a record for the highest number of Antonov-225 flights for a single project. In June 2007, four gas turbines, part of an emergency power station, were flown from Memphis to Kuwait City. Each turbine, weighing 133 tonnes, required a separate flight and filled up the belly of the plane with 10 cm of space to spare at the top of the cargo deck. The rest of the power station was transported on six barges, an ocean liner, Boeing 747s and an Antonov-124.

The Antonov-124 is the world's second largest cargo plane, with a wingspan of 73 m. Unlike the single Antonov-225, a fleet has built up; by 2008 there were 28 in commercial service, plus another 25 utilised by the Russian Air Force. In the future Antonov-124s might have a role in Russia's space programme, flying objects to high altitude and launching them from the rear doors. Meanwhile, the fleet supports space programmes in a workaday capacity, carrying equipment for satellites and the International Space Station.

Satellites have orbited the earth since the launch of the Soviet Sputnik in 1957. This triggered the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, but our ambitions for space travel have been thwarted. Expeditions to the moon fizzled out and manned expeditions to explore the solar system remain a distant prospect. Astronomical satellites helped make discoveries like quasars and planets in other solar systems, but the emphasis of space programmes turned inwards, to communication and observation of our home planet. Communication satellites relay television, radio and telephone signals. The Global Positioning System (GPS) network of satellites can pinpoint the location and movement of any object on or near the surface of the earth. A bewildering range of applications includes tracking aircraft, map-making, navigation for cars, trucks and ships, monitoring the flow of fuel along pipelines, following the movements of livestock and pets and tracking the migratory patterns of wild animals.

Earth observation satellites have brought unprecedented understanding of ecosystems. Increasingly, these satellites monitor human-made environmental problems: thinning of the ozone layer, deforestation, urban sprawl, soil erosion, depletion of groundwater and acidification of the oceans. Climate change is the most urgent environmental problem. Satellites monitor shrinking polar ice caps, retreating glaciers, the increased severity of storms, floods and droughts and the devastating impact on ecosystems.

Aviation and the Global Greenhouse

Greenhouse gases cause climate change, and fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – are the main source of emissions. Industrialisation is built on the remarkable properties of fossil fuels. The energy provided by a barrel of oil is equivalent to the physical labour of five agricultural labourers working non-stop twelve hours per day for five years. Accessing remaining fossil fuel deposits has taken precedence over making a transition to renewable alternatives: solar, wind, tidal, wave and geothermal power. The endgame is extreme oil, a process of diminishing returns. More energy is used to extract deposits lying deeper beneath the earth's surface and closer to polar regions. Lower-grade deposits are exploited, chiefly tar sands and shale gas embedded in sedimentary rock.

Aviation is a fast-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. Global emissions from aviation grew 11.2 per cent between 2005 and 2010.42 In addition to carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, several other pollutants emitted by planes – methane, nitrogen oxides, sulphate, soot and ozone precursors – have a warming effect. Linear condensation trails, 'contrails', which planes leave in the sky, compound the warming effect. The water vapour can form cirrus clouds, wispy formations in the higher levels of atmosphere, which trap heat. In 2009, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world's highest authority on the issue, calculated aviation's contribution to climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions at 4.9 per cent.


Excerpted from "Plane Truth"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Rose Bridger.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acronyms/ Glossary
1 The Future of Flight
2 Feeding the Fuel Tanks
3 Local Environmental Impacts
4 Threats to Wildlife & Farmland
5 Green Garnish
6 Air Cargo
7 Industrial Cargo
8 Arms, Aid & Accidents
9 Concrete & Overcapacity
10 Counting the Costs
11 Real Estate & Revenue Streams
12 How Aviation Keeps Growing

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