An Airbus A380 hits 2 Light Poles at LAX while carrying Fewer Passengers than a Smaller Boeing 777 can Carry

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 17th, 2014

Week in Review

The Boeing 747 ruled the long-haul routes for decades.  Because of its range.  And its size.  With it being able to carry so many passengers the cost per passenger fell.  Allowing it to offer ticket prices at prices people could afford while still making airlines a decent profit.  Airbus took on the Boeing 747.  And produced the mammoth A380.  A double-decker aircraft that can carry around 555 in three classes.  But this plane is big.  With a wingspan greater than the 747.  Not to mention special boarding requirements to load and unload its two decks.  But this extra large size couldn’t board at any run-of-the-mill 747 gate.  It needed a wider parking place.  Double-decker boarding gates.  As well as wider taxiways (see Korean Air A380 Hits 2 Light Poles At LA Airport by Tami Abdollah, AP, posted 4/17/2014 on Time).

A Korean Air A380 superjumbo jet hit two light poles while taxiing to its gate at a remote end of Los Angeles International Airport with hundreds of passengers aboard.

Airline spokeswoman Penny Pfaelzer says the flight arrived from Seoul Wednesday afternoon with 384 people aboard. She says an airport operations vehicle guided the jet onto a taxiway that wasn’t wide enough…

The A380 is the world’s largest commercial airliner, carrying passengers in a double-deck configuration. It has a wingspan of nearly 262 feet.

The search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is important.  Because Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was a Boeing 777.  One of the most popular long-range, wide-body aircraft flying today.  So if there is a mechanical defect every airline flying that plane would want to know.

Because of the cost of fuel airlines prefer 2-engine jets over 4-engine jets.  Which is why they like the 777 so much.  The 777-300ER can take 386 passengers in three classes 9,128 miles.  On only 2 engines.  Whereas the Airbus A380 can take 555 passengers in three classes 9,755 miles.  But on 4 engines.  Burning close to twice the fuel a 777 burns.  So the A380 can out fly the 777.  But at much higher fuel costs.  And with greater restrictions.  As the 777 can fit most any gate and taxiway at any airport.  Unlike the A380.  So is that extra passenger capacity worth it?  It is.  As long as you can fill the seats.  In this case, though, the A380 flew the approximately 6,000 miles from South Korea to Los Angeles with only 384 people aboard.  Something the Boeing 777-300ER could have done on half the engines.  And about half the fuel cost.

This is why the Boeing 777 is one of the most popular long-range, wide-body aircraft flying today.  Because it allows airlines to offer tickets at prices the people can afford while allowing the airlines a handsome profit.  And it has an incredible safety record.  Unless Malaysian Flight 370 changes that.  Which is why it is so important to find that plane and determine what happen.  As there are so many of these flying today.


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Air Transport vs. Rail Transport

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 29th, 2013

Economics 101

Trains require an Enormous Amount of Infrastructure between Terminal Points whereas a Plane does Not

Trains and jets are big and expensive.  And take huge sums of money to move freight and passengers.  Each has their strength.  And each has their weakness.  Planes are great for transporting people.  While trains are best for moving heavy freight.  They both can and do transport both.  But pay a premium when they are not operating at their strength.

The big difference between these two modes of transportation is infrastructure.  Trains require an enormous amount of infrastructure between terminal points.  Whereas a plane doesn’t need anything between terminal points.  Because they fly in the air.  But because they fly in the air they need a lot of fuel to produce enough lift to break free from the earth’s gravity.  Trains, on the other hand, don’t have to battle gravity as much.  As they move across the ground on steel rails.  Which offer little resistance to steel wheels.  Allowing them to pull incredible weights cross country.  But to do that they need to build and maintain very expensive train tracks between point A and point B.

To illustrate the difference in costs each incurs moving both people and freight we’ll look at a hotshot freight train and a Boeing 747-8.  A hotshot freight gets the best motive power and hustles on the main lines across the country.  The Boeing 747-8 is the latest in the 747 family and includes both passenger and freighter versions.  The distance between Los Angeles (LA) and New York City (NYC) is approximately 2,800 miles.  So let’s look at the costs of each mode of transportation moving both people and freight between these two cities.

Railroads are so Efficient at moving Freight because One Locomotive can pull up to 5,000 Tons of Freight

There are many variables when it comes to the cost of building and maintaining railroad track.  So we’re going to guesstimate a lot of numbers.  And do a lot of number crunching.  An approximate number for the cost per mile of new track is $1.3 million.  That includes land, material and labor.  So the cost of the track between LA and NYC is $3.6 billion.  Assuming a 7-year depreciation schedule that comes to $1.4 million per day.  If it takes 3 days for a hotshot freight to travel from LA to NYC that’s $4.3 million for those three days.  Of course, main lines see a lot of traffic.  So let’s assume there are 8 trains a day for a total of 24 trains during that 3-day period.  This brings the depreciation expense for that trip from LA to NYC down to $178,082.

So that’s the capital cost of those train tracks between point A and point B.  Now the operating costs.  An approximate number for annual maintenance costs per mile of track is $300,000.  So the annual cost to maintain the track between LA and NYC is $840 million.  Crunching the numbers the rest of the way brings the maintenance cost for that 3-day trip to approximately $278,671.  Assuming a fuel consumption of 4 gallons per mile, a fuel cost of $3/gallon and a lashup of 3 locomotives the fuel cost for that 3-day trip is approximately $100,800.  Adding the capital cost, the maintenance expense and the fuel costs brings the total to $566,553.  With each locomotive being able to pull approximately 5,000 tons of freight for a total of 15,000 tons brings the cost per ton of freight shipped to $37.77.

Now let’s look at moving people by train.  People are a lot lighter than heavy freight.  So we can drop one locomotive in the lashup.  And burn about a gallon less per mile.  Bringing the fuel cost down from $100,800 to $50,400.  And the total cost to $516,153.  Assuming these locomotives pull 14 Amtrak Superliners (plus a dining car and a baggage car) that’s a total of 1,344 passengers (each Superliner has a 96 passenger maximum capacity).  Dividing the cost by the number of passengers gives us a cost of $384.04 per passenger.

Passenger Rail requires Massive Government Subsidies because of the Costs of Building and Maintaining Track

A Boeing 747-8 freighter can carry a maximum 147.9 tons of freight.  While consuming approximately 13.7 gallons of jet fuel per mile.  At 2,800 miles that trip from LA to NYC will consume about 38,403 gallons of jet fuel.  At $3/gallon that comes to a $115,210 total fuel cost.  Or $778.97 per ton.  Approximately 1,962% more than moving a ton of freight from LA to NYC by train.  Excluding the capital costs of locomotives, rolling stock, airplanes, terminal infrastructure/fees, etc.  Despite that massive cost of building and maintaining rail between point A and point B the massive tonnage a train can move compared to what a plane can carry makes the train the bargain when moving freight.  But it’s a different story when it comes to moving people.

The Boeing 747-8 carries approximately 467 people on a typical flight.  And burns approximately 6.84 gallons per mile.  Because people are a lot lighter than freight.  Crunching the numbers gives a cost per passenger of $123.11.  Approximately 212% less than what it costs a train to move a person.  Despite fuel costs being almost the same.  The difference is, of course, the additional $465,753 in costs for the track running between LA and NYC.  Which comes to $346.54 per passenger.  Or about 90% of the cost/passenger.  Which is why there are no private passenger railroads these days.  For if passenger rail isn’t heavily subsidized by the taxpayer the price of a ticket would be so great that no one would buy them.  Except the very rich train enthusiast.  Who is willing to pay 3 times the cost of flying and take about 12 times the time of flying.

There are private freight railroads.  Private passenger airlines.  And private air cargo companies.  Because they all can attract customers without government subsidies.  Passenger rail, on the other hand, can’t.  Because of the massive costs to build and maintain railroad tracks.  With high-speed rail being the most expensive track to build and maintain.  Making it the most cost inefficient way to move people.  Requiring massive government subsidies.  Either for the track infrastructure.  Or the electric power that powers high-speed rail.


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Thrust, Drag, Lift, Weight, Concorde, Center of Pressure, Center of Gravity, Boeing 747, Slats and Flaps

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 16th, 2013

Technology 101

The Drawback to increasing Thrust and Lift with more Powerful Engines is the Weight of Greater Fuel Loads

To get an airplane off of the ground requires two things.  To produce thrust that is greater than drag.  And to produce lift that is greater than weight.  You do this and you’ll get any airplane off of the ground.  Of course, getting these two things is not the easiest thing to do.  Primarily because of the purpose of airplanes.  To move people and freight.  People and freight add weight.  Which increases the amount of lift needed.  And they make the plane bigger.  A bigger object displaces more air increasing drag.  And thus requiring more thrust.

Engines provide thrust.  And wings provide lift.  So the obvious solution to overcome greater drag is to produce greater thrust.  And the solution to overcome greater weight is to produce greater lift.  And we do both with fuel.  Greater amounts of fuel can power bigger engines that can produce more thrust.  And larger wings can produce greater lift.  But larger wings also produce more drag.  Requiring additional thrust.  And fuel.  Or, we can produce greater lift by moving air over the wings faster.  Also requiring additional thrust.  And fuel.

Of course, the obvious drawback to increasing both thrust and lift is the added weight of the fuel.  The more fuel carried the more weight lift has to overcome.  Requiring more powerful engines.  Or bigger wings.  Both of which require more fuel.  This is why our first planes were small by today’s standards.  The thrust of a propeller engine could not produce enough thrust to travel at high speeds.  Or operate at high altitudes.  And the first wings were relatively fixed.  Having the same surface area to produce lift at takeoffs and landings.  As well as at cruising altitudes.  Big wings that allowed the lifting of heavier weights produced a lot of drag.  Requiring more fuel to overcome that drag.  And the added weight of that fuel limited the number of people and freight they could carry.  Or they could trade off that fuel for more revenue weight.  The smaller fuel load, of course, reduced flying times.  Requiring an additional takeoff and landing or two to refuel.

A Wing that produces sufficient Lift at 600 MPH does not produce sufficient Lift at Takeoff and Landing Speeds

The supersonic Concorde was basically a flying gas can.  It was more missile than plane.  To travel at those great speeds required a very small cross section to reduce drag.  Limiting the Concorde to about 100 revenue paying passengers.  Its delta wing performed well at supersonic flight but required a drooping nose so the pilot could see over it to land and takeoff due to the extreme nose pitched up attitude.  As Concorde approached supersonic speeds the center of pressure moved aft.  Placing the center of gravity forward of the center of pressure.  Causing the nose to pitch down.  You correct this with trim controls on slower flying aircraft.  But using this on Concorde would create additional drag.  So they trimmed Concorde by pumping the remaining fuel to other fuel tanks to move the center of gravity to the center of pressure.

They designed Concorde to fly fast.  Which came at a cost.  They can only carry 100 revenue paying passengers.  So they can only divide the fuel cost between those 100 passengers.  Whereas a Boeing 747 could seat anywhere around 500 passengers.  Which meant you could charge less per passenger ticket while still earning more revenue than on Concorde.  Which is why the Boeing 747 ruled the skies for decades.  While Concorde flies no more.  And the only serious competition for the Boeing 747 is the Airbus A380.  Which can carry even more revenue paying passengers.  How do they do this?  To fly greater amount of people and freight than both piston-engine and supersonic aircraft?  While being more profitable than both?  By making compromises between thrust and drag.  And lift and weight.

Jet engines can produce more thrust than piston engines.  And can operate at higher altitudes.  Allowing aircraft to take advantage of thinner air to produce less drag.  Achieving speeds approaching 600 mph.  Not Concorde speeds.  But faster than every other mode of travel.  To travel at those speeds, though, requires a cleaner wing.  Something closer to Concorde than, say, a DC-3.  Something thinner and flatter than earlier wings.  But a wing that produces lift at 600 mph does not produce enough lift at takeoff and landing speeds.

Planes need more Runway on Hot and Humid Days than they do on Cool and Dry Days

The other big development in air travel (the first being the jet engine) are wings that can change shape.  Wings you can configure to have more surface area and a greater curve for low-speed flying (greater lift but greater drag).  And configure to have less surface area and a lesser curve for high-speed flying (less lift but less drag).  We do this with leading-edge slats (wing extensions at the leading edge of the wing).  And trailing-edge flaps (wing extensions at the trailing edge of the wing).  When fully extended they increase the surface area of the wing.  And add curvature at the leading and trailing edge of the wing.  Creating the maximum amount of lift.  As well as the greatest amount of drag.  Allowing a wing to produce sufficient lift at takeoff speeds (about 200 mph).  Once airborne the plane continues to increase its speed.  As it does they retract the slats and flaps.  As the wing can produce sufficient lift at higher speeds without the slats and flaps extended.

But there are limits to what powerful jet engines and slats/flaps can do.  A wing produces lift by having a high pressure under the wing pushing up.  And a low pressure on top of the wing pulling it up.  The amount of air passing over/under the wing determines the amount of lift.  As does the density of that air.  The more dense the air the more lift.  The thinner the air the less lift.  Which is why planes need less runway on a cold winter’s day than on a hot and humid summer’s day.  If you watch a weather report you’ll notice that clear days are associated with a high pressure.  And storms are associated with a low pressure.  When a storm approaches meteorologists will note the barometer is falling.  Meaning the air is getting thinner.  When the air is thinner there are fewer air molecules to pass over the wing surface.  Which is why planes need more runway on hot and humid days.  To travel faster to produce the same amount of lift they can get at slower speeds on days cooler and dryer.

For the same reason planes taking off at higher elevations need more runway than they do at lower elevations.  Either that or they will have to reduce takeoff weight.  They don’t throw people or their baggage off of the airplane.  They just reduce the fuel load.  Of course, by reducing the fuel load a plane will not be able to reach its destination without landing and refueling.  Increasing costs (airport and fuel expenses for an additional takeoff and landing).  And increasing flying time.  Which hurts the economics of flying a plane like a Boeing 747.  A plane that can transport a lot of people over great distances at a low per-person cost.  Adding an additional takeoff and landing for refueling adds a lot of cost.  Reducing the profitability of that flight.  Not as bad as a normal Concorde flight.  But not as good as a normal Boeing 747 flight.


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Steam Locomotive, Diesel Electric Locomotive, Interstate Highway System, Airplane, Air Travel, Refined Petroleum Products and Pipelines

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 21st, 2012

Technology 101

The Diesel Electric Locomotive could pull a Train Cross Country and into the Heart of a City with Minimal Pollution

The 1920s were transformative years.  The Roaring Twenties.  It’s when we moved from animal power to mechanical power.  From the horse and plow to the tractor.  From steam power to electric power.  From the telegraph to the telephone.  From the gas lamp to the electric light.  From crowded mass transit to the freedom of the automobile.  From manual labor to the assembly line. 

You can see a glimpse of that world in 1920’s Steam Train Journey Across the United States – Westward Ho!  The beginning of the modern city.  With modern street lighting.  Electric power and telephone overhead wiring.  Streets crowded with automobiles.  Tractors and mechanical harvesters on the farm.  And, of course, the steam locomotive.  Connecting distant cities.  Transferring the freight to feed the modern industrial economy.  And shipping the finished goods.  As well as all that food from the farm to our grocer’s shelves.  Proving the 1920s were vibrant economic times.  With real economic growth.  And not a speculative bubble.  For there was nothing speculative about all of this technology becoming a part of our way of life.

Of course the technology wasn’t perfect.  The coal-burning locomotives belched black smoke and ash wherever they went.  Which wasn’t all that bad in the open country where a train or two passed.  But it was pretty dangerous in tunnels.  Which had to be short lest they suffocated their passengers.  (One of the reasons why all subways use electric trains).  Making for some long and winding railroads in mountainous terrain.  To go around mountains instead of under them.  Slowing trains and increasing travel time.  And they were pretty unpleasant in the cities.  Where the several rail lines converged.  Bringing a lot of coal-burning locomotives together.  Creating a smoky haze in these cities.  And leaving a layer of ash everywhere.  The cleaner diesel-burning locomotives changed that.  The diesel electric locomotive could pull a train cross country and into the heart of a city with a minimal amount of pollution.  As long as they kept their engines from burning rich.  Which they would if they operated them with dirty air filters.  Reducing fuel efficiency by having the air-fuel mixture contain too much fuel.  And causing these engines to belch black smoke.  Similar to diesel trucks running with dirty air filters.

Airplanes can travel between Two Points in a Direct Line at Faster Speeds than a Train or Bus with Minimal Infrastructure

Trains shrunk our country.  Brought distant cities together.  Allowing people to visit anywhere in the continental United States.  And the railroads profited well from all of this travel.  Until two later developments.  One was the interstate highway system.  That transferred a lot of freight from the trains to trucks.  As well as people from trains to buses and cars.  And then air travel.  That transferred even more people from trains to airplanes.  This competition really weakening railroads’ profits.  And pretty much put an end to passenger rail.  For people used the interstate highway system for short trips.  And flew on the long ones.  Which was quicker.  And less expensive.  Primarily because airplanes flew over terrain that was costly to avoid.

Highways and railroads have to negotiate terrain.  They have to wind around obstacles.  Go up and down mountainous regions.  Cross rivers and valleys on bridges.  Travel under hilly terrain through tunnels.  And everywhere they go they have to travel on something built by man.  All the way from point A to point B.  Now trucks, buses and cars have an advantage here.  We subsidize highway travel with fuel taxes.  Trucking companies, bus lines and car owners didn’t have to build the road and infrastructure connecting point A to point B.  Like the railroads do.  The railroads had to supply that very extensive and very expensive infrastructure themselves.  Paid for by their freight rates and their passenger ticket sales.  And when there were less expensive alternatives it was difficult to sell your rates and fares at prices high enough to support that infrastructure.  Especially when that lower-priced alternative got you where you were going faster.  Like the airplane did.

Man had always wanted to fly.  Like a bird.  But no amount of flapping of man-made wings got anyone off the ground.  We’re too heavy and lacked the necessary breast muscles to flap anything fast enough.  Not to mention that if we could we didn’t have any means to stabilize ourselves in flight.  We don’t have a streamline body or tail feathers.  But then we learned we could create lift.  Not by flapping but my pushing a curved wing through the air.  As the air passes over this curved surface it creates lift.  Generate enough speed and you could lift quite a load with those wings.  Including people.  Cargo.  Engines.  And fuel.  Add in some control elements and we could stabilize this in flight.  A tail fin to prevent yawing (twisting left and right) from the direction of flight.  Like a weathercock turns to point in the direction of the wind.  And an elevator (small ‘wing’ at the tail of the plane) to control pitch (nose up and nose down).  Ailerons correct for rolling.  Or turn the plane by rolling.  By tipping the wings up or down to bank the airplane (to turn left the left aileron goes up and the right aileron goes down).  And using the elevator on the take-off roll to pitch the nose up to allow the plane to gain altitude.  And in flight it allows the plane to ascend or descend to different altitudes.  Put all of this together and it allows an airplane to travel between points A and B while avoiding all terrain.  In a direct line between these two points.  At a much faster speed than a train, bus or car can travel.  And the only infrastructure required for this are the airports at points A and B.  And the few en route air traffic controllers between points A and B. Which consisted of radar installations and dark rooms with people staring at monitors.  Communicating to the aircraft.  Helping them to negotiate the air highways without colliding into other aircraft.  And air travel took off, of course, in the 1920s.  The Roaring Twenties.  Those glorious transformative years.

Refined Petroleum Products have Large Concentrations of Energy and are the Only Fuel that allows Air Travel

The most expensive cost of flying is the fuel cost.  The costlier it is the costlier it is to fly.  Not so for the railroads.  Because their fuel costs aren’t the most expensive cost they have.  Maintaining their infrastructure is.  They can carry incredible loads cross country for a small price per unit weight.  Without swings in fuel prices eating into their profits.  Making them ideal to transfer very large and/or heavy loads over great distances.  Despite dealing with all the headaches of terrain.  For neither a plane nor a truck can carry the same volume a train can.  And heavier loads on a plane take far greater amounts of fuel.  This additional fuel itself adding a great amount of weight to the aircraft.  Thus limiting its flight distance.  Requiring refueling stops along the way.  Making it a very expensive way to transport heavy loads.  Which is why we ship coal on trains.  Not on planes.

Trains are profitable again.  But they’re not making their money moving people around.  Their money is in heavy freight.  Iron ore.  Coke.  And, of course, coal.  To feed the modern industrial economy.  Stuff too heavy for our paved roads.  And needed in such bulk that it would take caravans of trucks to carry what one train can carry.  But even trains can’t transport something in enough bulk to make it cost efficient.  Refined petroleum.  Gasoline.  Diesel.  And jet fuel.  For these we use pipelines.  From pipelines we load gas and diesel onto trucks and deliver it to your local gas station.  We run pipelines directly to the fuel racks in rail yards.   And run pipelines to our airports.  Where we pump jet fuel into onsite storage tanks in large fuel farms.  Which we then pump out in another set of pipelines to fueling hydrants located right at aircraft gates.

These refined petroleum products carry large concentrations of energy.  Are easy to transport in pipelines.  Are portable.  And are very convenient.  Planes and trains (as well as ships, busses and cars) can carry them.  Allowing them to travel great distances.  Something currently no renewable energy can do.  And doing without them would put an end to air travel.  Greatly increase the cost of rail transport (by electrifying ALL our tracks).  Or simply abandoning track we don’t electrify.  Making those far distant cities ever more distant.  And our traveling options far more limited than they were in the 1920s.  Turning the hands of time back about a hundred years.  Only we’ll have less.  And life will be less enjoyable.


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