Airbus next year will begin testing a project it calls Fello'fly, which is designed to facilitate the introduction of formation flying on transatlantic routes as soon as 2025.

The goal of the project is to help airlines reduce emissions, with a trailing aircraft taking advantage of the wake updraft created by the leading plane, much as geese do when they fly in their familiar triangle formation. Earlier testing has led Airbus to believe that trailing aircraft could produce 5% to 10% fewer emissions by flying in a leading plane's wake.

"We see a huge chunk of potential here," said Daniel Percy, director of Fello'fly. 

The project will commence next year, with Airbus conducting a series of test flights in which two aircraft are separated by just 3 kilometers, with the trailing aircraft lined up to "ride" the upwash created by the leading aircraft. By the end of the year, Percy said, Airbus wants to conduct a test in which the two aircraft travel in that fashion from Western Europe to the U.S. West Coast.

The goal of the first year of testing is to prove that such flying is safe. Currently, aircraft flying over the U.S. are required to maintain a separation of at least 3 nautical miles (approximately 5.5 kilometers). Aircraft over the North Atlantic have traditionally been spaced 40 nautical miles apart or farther, although a satellite system launched this year by Aireon has given controllers the real-time visibility to separate aircraft by just 14 nautical miles.Also during next year's testing, Airbus plans to design pilot systems to facilitate formation flying. Without them, pilots can't see the updraft of a leading aircraft, Percy said. 

Assuming next year’s tests go according to plan, in 2021 Airbus will enlist airline and air traffic control (ATC) partners for broader testing. A key goal over that year would be to establish the viability of two aircraft rendezvousing in flight. As Airbus envisions it, planes that fly as partners wouldn't have to depart from the same airport; they could also meet up en route. The use of rendezvous would make the formation-flying concept more operationally practicable, since an airline or airlines wouldn’t have to schedule multiple services on identical routes at the same time. 

Percy said that in discussions, air traffic controllers have said that they don't expect facilitating rendezvous to be an especially complicated task, since they have long done that with military aircraft.

Airbus' formal launch of Fello'fly will take place as the commercial airline industry is facing more pressure than ever to reduce emissions. The flight-shaming movement led by teen Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has already led to a decline in flying in her native country. Meanwhile, Germany and France have laid out plans for new and increased ecotaxes on airlines. 

For Airbus, the idea of exploring the emissions benefits of formation flying isn't newly germinated. In 2016, the aircraft manufacturer conducted a series of tests to examine initial questions of how much fuel such flying could save and if it could be done comfortably for passengers. That's how the company developed the estimate that formation flying would reduce emissions by 5% to 10%.

It was also during those early tests that Airbus determined the separation target of 3 kilometers. That distance, Percy said, is a sweet spot balancing the need for safety with the back aircraft trailing the front one closely enough to realize strong benefits. It’s also a distance at which passengers won't experience wake turbulence.

Percy said that advancements in air traffic control satellite technology are a prime reason that Airbus decided the time is right to consider formation flying. He said the company envisions such flying beginning over the Atlantic because airspace over land is much more crowded. The partner flights would be phased in slowly. Flights will initially involve two aircraft but could evolve into larger formations. 

Still, such a radical departure from traditional ATC procedures is bound to be viewed with some skepticism. 

Among the skeptics is analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann and Co., who said that under current rules, 3 kilometers of separation is a nonstarter. And while Mann acknowledged that existing requirements could be modified over time as aircraft around the U.S. and Europe are equipped with mandated satellite transponders, he said operational considerations will present another problem.

"Birds do it, but since airlines don't manage flight activity in real time, good luck with proposed formation flying," Mann said.

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