With production centers in a number of different locations throughout Europe, each specializing in the manufacture of sections of aircraft which are later assembled, Airbus needs reliable methods of transport between its various factories. For twenty years the Airbus A300-600ST (Super Transporter) has played a major role in this transport network. Airbus operates five of these super transporters, nicknamed “Beluga” because of their shape being similar to the Beluga whale.
When Airbus decided to create its own transport system to keep up with the growing demand for airplanes in the early 1990s, designers modified the frame of the Airbus A300-600 – an airplane with a proven track record of reliability. The aircraft’s top section was cut and a bubble-shaped fuselage section was added, while the cockpit was lowered, allowing for the loading and unloading of cargo to take place through the front of the Beluga. The Beluga’s payload is 47 tons, and while there are other aircraft with a higher maximum payload, the Beluga’s spacious cargo hold makes it perfect for transporting unwieldy and odd-shaped cargo that is not excessively heavy. For example, the Beluga can transport an A340 airliner’s wings, or even the A350 wide-body aircraft’s fuselage section. It does have limitations, however, and larger parts, such as those for the A380 Super Jumbo, are transported by road, boat or barge.
In the five years since its first commercial flight, the double-decker Airbus A380 has become a familiar sight at the world’s largest airports, some of which had to widen and strengthen their runways to accommodate the huge aircraft. The airplane’s parts are made in different manufacturing plants. The wings are made in Broughton, Wales; the forward and middle fuselages in St Nazaire, France; the rear fuselage in Hamburg, Germany; and the horizontal tailplane in Cadiz, Spain.
As the demand for airplanes continues to increase, and taking into account that Airbus has become more globalized with assembly plants in Alabama and China, the company is reportedly looking at cargo aircraft designs to replace the aging Belugas. The new aircraft, currently referred to as the Beluga XL, will be able to carry heavier payloads and have a longer range. It seems very likely that the characteristic “Beluga” shape will remain relatively unchanged.
According to a recent report by the International Air Transport Association, the number of airplane passengers is likely to grow by a third in the next four years, to 3.9 billion. As more and more people travel greater distances, often as a matter of routine, the issue of energy efficiency of different modes of transport has been investigated by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, with some interesting results. While people tend to think that driving a car is easier on the environment that flying in an airplane, the advanced technology of new airplanes is making them increasingly fuel-efficient.
To match the fuel-efficiency of some newer airplanes, cars would need to be able to get 33.8 miles per gallon, or carry more than one passenger. Current average fuel consumption is 23.8 miles per gallon, meaning that fuel-efficiency must improve by as much as 57 percent to challenge the performance of commercial airline flights. Also, current number of people per car is 1.38, which should be increased to at least 2.3 people to improve fuel-efficiency data for cars. While car-pooling is a concept long embraced by environmentally (and cost conscious) people, there are still a large percentage of cars that travel with only the driver in them, whereas airplanes are generally crammed to the limit with passengers.
Due to huge price increases over the past decade or so, fuel remains the single largest expense for airlines. Associated Press reports that in 2013, US airlines spent up to $50 billion on fuel. In the past five years airlines have been replacing older airplanes with the latest model airplanes from aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, designed to be 15 percent more fuel-efficient than before. In fact, the purchase of new aircraft has been at a higher rate than ever before, with 8,200 being ordered in the past five years. Currently up to 24 planes are manufactured each week, an impressive increase over the 11 per week of a decade ago.
While increased fuel efficiency, reliability and extended range are all motivating factors in the recent airplane buying spree, there are other reasons airlines are upgrading their fleets. Some of the old planes still have ashtrays in the arms of the seats, which clearly are redundant now, plus passengers expect the modern amenities such as power outlets and USB ports that older airplanes don’t have.