According to a recently-granted patent, Airbus is exploring the potential of creating a new breed of versatile, modular aircraft that would see detachable passenger cabins slot into a hole in an aeroplane's fuselage. The concept has the potential to revolutionize air travel, while providing significant savings for airlines by reducing the time that planes spend idle on the ground.
After landing, and prior to launch, a conventional aeroplane has to sit on the tarmac waiting for a necessary but glacial set of events to unfold. This period of inactivity, which is the combined result of a number of factors including the embarking of passengers, luggage and freight, costs airlines time and money.
The newly patented concept would seek to remedy these limitations by taking a more modular approach to the whole situation. Instead of a single hull, aeroplanes would essentially be built with a hole in their fuselage between the nose cone and the tail section, into which modular compartments could be fitted and removed.
The compartments, which could take on the purpose of a passenger, luxury passenger or freight unit, would be transferred between the aircraft and airport via a docking module, which according to Airbus would (ideally) be integrated into airport terminal buildings.
Such a system would allow passengers to be seated, or cargo to be loaded over an extended period of time while the cabin was docked in the terminal without the need to immobilize the aircraft beyond the time necessary to carry out preflight operations such as refuelling, the cleaning of a cabin, and the execution of routine technical checks. This would dramatically reduce inactivity time, with the effect of increasing the overall number of flights, and therefore profitability of the airline.
Furthermore, the implementation of a modular system would afford airlines an unprecedented level of flexibility in the make up of their fleet. Ordinarily, each aircraft is purpose built to serve as, for example, a passenger or freight service. Therefore, under the current integrated aircraft designs, an airline would have to purchase additional aircraft or make costly modifications to existing units to serve multiple roles.
A modular approach to aircraft construction would allow an airline to switch the purpose of a plane in a matter of hours simply by replacing the cabin, ready to cater to the short term needs of the airline with a level of cost effective efficiency that cannot be matched by single-hull aircraft.
It's fair to say that such a system would represent a huge leap forward in the commercial aviation sphere. But of course, it's very early days. The cost of creating and implementing such a system, paired with unforeseen complications in the development process, as well as the significant alterations you'd have to make to current airport architectures, means we won't be taking a ride in a modular airliner any time soon.
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