Dirigibles may do the Heavy Lifting in Alaska

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 28th, 2013

Week in Review

If you’ve watched Ice Road Truckers you’ve learned that it isn’t easy to move freight in Arctic regions.  Like Alaska.  Because there aren’t a lot of roads or bridges in Arctic regions.  Hence the ice roads.  Crossing rivers, lakes and oceans in the winter when they’re frozen over.  But even these roads cover only a fraction of Alaska’s sprawling country.  Which is why the airplane dominates in Alaska.  To move freight.  And people.  Making for some really high transportation costs.  Raising the costs of everything the good people of Alaska buy (see Hometown U: Could blimps find a place in Alaska skies? by Kathleen McCoy, Hometown U, posted 7/27/2013 on Anchorage Daily News).

Rob Harper at AUTC [Alaska University Transportation Center] pointed me to a new study the Center and UAA’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) partnered on, looking at the effect of higher transportation fuel prices. He called it a true eye-opener on the ever-rising cost of moving goods to and around Alaska. Every household and business is affected. No one thinks fuel prices will go down again.

ISER economists have often looked at spiking heat and electricity costs, but this was a first attempt to document higher transportation costs rippling through Alaska’s economy. In 2010, economist Ginny Fay and her study colleagues reported, Alaska’s per capita energy consumption was triple the national average.

Alaska fuel prices increased more than 25 percent between 2009 and 2010. Consumers responded by buying fewer cars and airplane tickets. They also paid higher prices for everything they did buy, from food to clothing…

Industries that use the most fuel are the hardest hit. In Alaska, that’s aviation, which uses 90 percent of it, Fay wrote.

And this in a state that exports oil.  But while they may be rich in oil reserves they have no refinery capacity.  Which means refined aviation fuel, diesel and gasoline has to be brought into Alaska.  And unlike the lower 48, that get their refined petroleum products via pipelines, Alaska must rely on more costly modes of transportation.  Shipping it over land or over water in smaller batches at greater prices.

Here’s where those slow, graceful dirigibles wedge their way back into our conversation. Being lighter than air thanks to nonflammable helium, and moving much slower than planes, they consume a lot less fuel. One research study for the military in 2009 compared an hour of flight time in an F-16 ($8,000) to an hour of flight time in a dirigible (less than $500).

Traditional air cargo is the most expensive way to move freight on a fuel-cost-per-ton-mile basis. Fay’s analysis showed that rail is cheapest, followed by trucks, then barge, ships and ferries. But Alaska only has 500 miles of rail. Our ships and barges often leave the state less than full, raising the cost per ton-mile. And we only have two roads, one north and one south. Most of Alaska is nowhere near a road or a coastline. So we’re back to air cargo.

Rail is the cheapest way to move heavy freight because of steel wheels on steel rails.  There’s very little friction so locomotives can pull a very long train consist full of heavy freight.  And they move fast.  Day or night.  In any kind of weather.  So they can quickly carry revenue-producing freight nearly around the clock.  Trucks are fast like trains but carry far less per load.  And whereas railroads change out train crews to keep trains rolling around the clock most long-haul trucks are privately owned.  And when the driver reaches his legal limit of driving time per day he or she has to park their rig and rest for a mandatory rest period.  Thus reducing the revenue-miles of trucks compared to trains.

Barges, ships and ferries can carry larger loads than trucks but loading and unloading takes time.  Time they can’t earn revenue.  Also, they travel slower than trains or trucks.  Limiting the amount of revenue-earning trips they can make.  Whereas air cargo is the fastest way to move cargo.  Allowing many revenue-earning trips.  But the planes flying in Alaska carry a fraction of the cargo trains, trucks, barges, ships and ferries can carry.  Greatly increasing the fuel-cost-per-ton-mile.  Which makes the dirigible such an attractive alternative in Arctic regions like Alaska.

The dirigible doesn’t need a road or waterway.  It can travel year round weather permitting.  It’s slow but because it burns so little fuel the cost per trip is nothing compared to an airplane.  It can’t carry as much as a train, barge or ship but it can go where a train, barge or ship can’t.  And it can travel as the crow flies.  A straight line between two points.  Something that only an airplane can do.  But it can do it for a far lower fuel-cost-per-ton-mile than an airplane.

There is little downside of using a dirigible to ship freight in these inhospitable Arctic regions.  Unless you’re a fan of Ice Road Trucking.  For a dirigible could probably carry anything a truck can carry.  And without a road, paved or ice, to boot.  Putting the ice road truckers out of business.

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Kerosene, Jet Fuel, Lockheed Constellation, Boeing 707, Boeing 747-400, Newton’s Third Law of Motion, Turbojet and Fan Jet

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 3rd, 2012

Technology 101

The only way to make Flying Available to the General Public is to put as many People as Possible on an Airplane

Refined petroleum products have made our lives better.  We have gasoline to drive wherever we want.  We have diesel fuel to transport things on ships and trains like petroleum oil, iron ore, coal, food, medicine, smartphones, coffee, tea, wine, scotch whisky, bourbon whiskey, beer, fresh fish, sushi, etc.  Pretty much everything we buy at a store or a restaurant got there on something powered by diesel fuel.  And sometimes kerosene.  If it must travel fast.  And if it does then it finds itself on a jet aircraft.

Today aviation has shrunk the world.  We can order a new smartphone sitting on a shelf in California and have it the next day in New York.  We can even travel to distant countries.  Some in the time of a typical working day.  Some a half a day or longer.  When but a 100 years earlier it took a couple of weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean.  While 200 years ago it took a couple of months.  We can travel anywhere.  And get there quickly.  Thanks to the jumbo jet.  And not just the super-rich.  Pretty much anyone today can afford to buy a plane ticket to travel anywhere in the world.  And one thing makes this possible.  The jet engine.

Airplanes are expensive.  So are airports, air traffic control and jet fuel.  Airlines pay for all of these costs one passenger at a time.  Their largest cost is their fuel cost.  The longer the flight the greater the cost.  So the only way to make flying available to the general public is to put as many people as possible on an airplane.  Dividing the total flying cost by the number of passengers on the airplane.  This is why we fly on jumbo jets for these longer flights.  Because there are more people to split the total costs.  Lowering the cost per ticket.  Before the jet engine, though, it was a different story.

The Boeing 747-400 can take up to 660 Passengers some 7,260 Miles at a Speed of 567 MPH

One of the last intercontinental propeller-driven airplanes was the Lockheed Constellation.  A plane with four (4) Wright R-3350-DA3 Turbo Compound 18-cylinder supercharged radial engines putting out 3,250 horsepower each.  Which is a lot considering today’s typical 6-cyclinder automobile engine is lucky to get 300 horsepower.  No, the horsepower of one of these engines is about what one modern diesel-electric locomotive produces.  So these are big engines.  With a total power equal to about four locomotives lashed up.  Which is a lot of power.  And what does that power allow the Constellation do?  Not much by today’s standards.

In its day the Lockheed Constellation was a technological wonder.  It could take up to 109 passengers some 5,500 miles at a speed of 340 mph.  No bus or train could match this.  Not to mention it could fly over the water.  Then came the age of the jet.  The Boeing 707 being the first largely successful commercial jetliner.  Which could take up to 189 passengers some 6,160 miles at a speed of 607 mph.  That’s 73.4% more passengers, a 78.5% faster speed and a 14.1% longer range.  Which is an incredible improvement over the Constellation.  But nothing compared to the Boeing 747-400.  Which can take up to 660 passengers (506% more than the Constellation and 249% more than the 707) some 7,260 miles at a speed of 567 mph.

Now remember, fuel is the greatest cost of aviation.  So let’s assume that a intercontinental flight costs a total of $75,000 for each plane flying the same route.  Dividing that cost by the number of passengers you get a ticket price of approximately $688, $397 and $114 for the Constellation, the 707 and the 747-400, respectively.  So you can see the advantage of packing in as many passengers as possible into an airplane to lower the cost of flying.  Which is why the jumbo jets fly the longest routes that consume the most fuel.  And why we no longer fly propeller-driven aircraft except on short routes to airports with short runways.  These engines just don’t have the power to get a plane off the ground with enough people to reduce the cost of flying to a price most people could afford.  Only the jet engine has that kind of power.

The Fan Jet is basically a Turbojet with a Large Fan in front of the Compressor

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Think of a balloon you just blew up and are holding closed.  If you release your hold air will exit the balloon in one direction.  And the balloon will move in the opposite direction.  This is how a jet engine moves an aircraft.  Hot exhaust gases exit the engine in one direction.  Pushing the jet engine in the opposite direction.  And because the jet engines move the plane moves.  With the force of the jet engines transferred via their connection points to the aircraft.  The greater the speed of the gas exiting the jet the faster it will push a plane forward.

The jet engine gets that power from the continuous cycle of the jet engine.  Air enters one end, gets compressed, enters a combustion chamber, mixes with fuel (kerosene), ignites, expands rapidly and exits the other end.  The hot (3,632 degree Fahrenheit) and expanding gases pass through and spin a turbine.  Then exit the engine.  The turbine is connected to the compressor at the front of the engine.  So the exhaust gases spin the compressor that sucks air into the engine.  As the air passes through the compressor it compresses and heats up.  Then it enters the combustion chamber and joins fuel that is injected and burned continuously.  Sort of like pouring gas on a burning fire.  Only enormous amounts of compressed air and kerosene are poured onto a burning fire.  As this air-fuel mixture burns it rapidly expands.  And exits the combustion chamber faster than the air entered it.  And shoots a hot stream of jet gas out the tail pipe.  Which produces the loud noise of these turbojets.  This fast jet of air cuts through the surrounding air.  Resulting in a shear effect.  Which the next generation of jet engines, the fan jet, greatly reduces.

The fan jet is basically a turbojet with one additional feature.  A large fan in front of the compressor.  These are the big engines you see on the jumbo jets.  They add another turbine inside the jet that spins the fan at the front of the engine.  Which feeds some air into the compressor of what is basically a turbojet.  But a lot of the air this fan sucks in bypasses the turbojet core.  And blows directly out the back of the fan at high speed.  In fact, this bypass air provides about 75% of the total thrust of the fan jet.  Acting more like a propeller than a jet.  And as an added benefit this bypass air surrounds the faster exhaust of the jet thereby lessening the shear effect.  Making these larger engines pretty quiet.  In fact a DC-9, an MD-80, a 707 or a 727 with standard turbojets are much louder than a 747 with 4 fan jets at full power.  They’re quieter.  And they can push a lot more people through the air at incredible speeds over great distances at a reasonable price per passenger than any other aircraft engine.

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The High Cost of Labor Contracts and Environmental Regulations cause Planes to Run Low on Fuel

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 26th, 2012

Week in Review

Here is a lesson in basic economics.  There is a tradeoff between costs and safety in aviation.  You could hire thousands of additional mechanics to give an airplane a complete overhaul after each flight.  And double their pay rate just to make sure they are especially happy workers.  You can have a couple of chase planes follow a passenger airliner on every flight to observe the outside of the aircraft so they can warn the pilot of any problems.  And you can top off every fuel tank on an airplane just to be extra safe.  These things would make flying safer.  But they would also make it very expensive to fly.  So expensive that few people would fly.  Thus reducing the amount of airplanes in the sky.  As well as the number of flight and maintenance crews.  Which illustrates the ultimate cost of generous union contracts.  The more they ask for the more they put themselves out of a job.

But these unions are powerful.  Margins are so thing in aviation that a strike could turn a profitable year into a money losing year.  So to avoid a strike they cut costs where they can.  And the one cost that gives them something to work with is their fuel costs.  Because an airplane only needs enough fuel to fly from point A to point B.  Plus some reserves.  So they are very careful in calculating the fuel requirements to get from point A to point B.  But sometimes weather can enter the picture and add a point C.  And this can sometimes cause a fuel emergency (see Pilots forced to make emergency landings because of fuel shortages by David Millward posted 8/20/2012 on The Telegraph).

Pilots have had to make 28 emergency landings because they were running low on fuel according to figures compiled by the Civil Aviation Authority…

Although the total represents of fuel-related emergency landings is a reduction on 2008-10, when there were 41 such incidents, some pilots have warned the airlines are operating on very narrow margins as they seek to cut operating costs…

One retired pilot told the Exaro website that he and his colleagues were under pressure from airlines because of the industry’s need to keep costs down.

“There is pressure on pilots by airlines to carry minimum fuel because it costs money to carry the extra weight, and that is quite significant over a year…

“The way in which aircraft are being developed in becoming more fuel efficient, there is less need for fuel.

We make jet fuel by refining petroleum oil.  And two things make this an expensive endeavor.  Higher environmental regulations.  And reductions in supply.  Often due to those same environmental regulations.  If they allowed the American oil business to drill, baby, drill, it would be safer to fly.  Because fuel would be less expensive.  And airlines could more easily afford to carry the extra fuel weight.

Airlines don’t have much power over controlling the price of jet fuel.  It is what the market says it is.  They have a little more luck in keeping their capital costs down thanks to the bitter rivalry between Boeing and Airbus.  Who are both eager to sell their airplanes.  Cutting their labor costs is another option they have but it comes with great political costs.  Usually it takes the specter of bankruptcy to get concessions from labor.  So when it comes to cutting their operating costs the least objectionable route to go is to cut fuel costs.  By loading the absolute bare minimum required by regulations.  And for safety.  Airlines want to save money.  But having planes fall out of the sky to save fuel costs will cost more in the long run.  In more ways than one.  (It’s hard to get people to fly on an airline that has a reputation of having their planes fall out of the sky.)

So there are only two practical options to fix this problem of skimping on the fuel load.  Either you drill, baby, drill.  Or you get labor concessions to lower you labor, pension and health care costs.  The very same things that are bankrupting American cities.  So you know the costly union workers are all in favor of drill, baby, drill.  Because the lower the cost of jet fuel the less pressure there is on their pay and benefits.

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The Lack of Aviation Accidents is making it Difficult to make Extremely Safe Flying any Safer

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 30th, 2012

Week in Review

Flying has never been safer.  Or more automated.  There have been so few accidents in the last decade that it’s getting harder to make safety improvements.  Because through much of the history of flying safety improvements followed the accidents (see Airline Crash Deaths Too Few to Make New Safety Rules Pay by Andrew Zajac posted 6/25/2012 on Bloomberg).

More than a decade has passed since the last major-airline accident on U.S. soil. That’s great news for aviation companies and their passengers — and a complication for rule makers trying to improve flight safety.

The benefits of aviation rules are calculated primarily on how many deaths they may prevent, so the safest decade in modern airline history is making it harder to justify the cost of new requirements.

“If anyone wants to advance safety through regulation, it can’t be done without further loss of life,” said William Voss, chief executive officer of the Alexandria, Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has made flying safer.  By combing through airplane accidents to find out what went wrong.  Sadly, it took loss of life to advance safety.  Because a plane that didn’t have an accident was safe.  And didn’t need any safety advancements.

A cost-benefit analysis is at the heart of a dispute between the FAA and unions representing pilots of cargo carriers such as FedEx Corp. (FDX) and United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS) over the scope of the new regulations, which take effect in January 2014.

The rules will limit the hours pilots fly, taking into account the time of day they work as well as the number of takeoffs and landings. First proposed by the FAA for both passenger and cargo pilots, the rules were trimmed to exempt freight carriers following review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs…

Regulators concluded that the benefit of improving pilot safety at freight airlines wasn’t worth the expense. Because costs of crashes are based primarily on the value of lost lives and freight airlines don’t carry passengers, losses are inherently smaller in cargo accidents under the formula…

Freight carriers object to the new fatigue rules because the costs are at least 10 times the benefits based on FAA data, according to Stephen Alterman, president of the Washington-based Cargo Airline Association. Cargo-airline pilots fly an average of 30 hours a month, compared with 50 hours a month for passenger-airline pilots, he said.

Passenger airline pilots fly more because passenger aircraft fly more.  A commuter route may make 3-4 round-trips in one day.  The freight aircraft (such as FedEx and UPS) typically fly overnight.  Trucks make their deliveries to the airports at the end of the day.  The planes fly through the night so trucks at the destination city can deliver those packages the following morning.

Automatic flight controls have made flying safer.  But they have also contributed to pilot fatigue.  As being a pilot is more about monitoring systems than manually flying a plane.  Which gets boring.  There was a recent incident where both pilots nodded off for a few minutes and overflew their destination.  There was another incident where the pilots were getting conflicting warnings (an over-speed warning and a stall warning at the same time due to a plugged airspeed sensor) causing great confusion.  They focused their attention on the automatic flight systems a little too long and stalled the aircraft.  These are good pilots.  Highly skilled.  But sitting still and monitoring flight systems without having to do any flying can dull the reflexes.  Not much.  But enough.

These incidents are the exception to the rule.  The rule being that flying has never been safer.  And there is no other form of transportation as safe as flying.

The risk of a fatal accident in commercial aviation has been reduced to 1 out of 49 million flights over the past five years, from 1 in 1.7 million flights from 1975 to 1989, according to NTSB records. That’s a 96 percent decrease in risk…

Safety has improved since the late 1990s as the airline industry and regulators learned to analyze massive quantities of data for anomalies and voluntarily made changes to head off potential problems, according to Thomas Hendricks, Airlines for America’s senior vice president for operations and safety.

“We go out and proactively address an issue prior to waiting for an incident to occur,” Hendricks said in an interview. “The information technology revolution has made this possible.”

Airlines cannot get people to fly their planes if they have a reputation for being unsafe.  That’s why airlines are analyzing data and voluntarily making changes if it will make them safer.  For having a reputation that your planes don’t fall out of the sky is a good thing.  Making new regulations almost moot.  Except, perhaps, in one area.  Letting pilots fly again.  They want to.  They can fly extremely well.  And should.  For the best way of bringing an aircraft in trouble safely back down is having a highly skilled pilot at the flight controls.  Which we have.  But we’re just not letting them fly much these days.

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