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NASA has long been the leading experimenter in future aircraft design. They believe new designs could save airlines $250 billion in coming decades. Along with reducing fuel and pollution by 70 percent, these prototypes make 50 percent less noise than conventional passenger planes. The aircraft shown here is one of several N + 3 designs—aircraft that can be used three generations into the future. Dubbed the Double Bubble, this MIT model places three engines at the rear of a double-wide fuselage, enabling the wings to be smaller and lighter. Rear engine placement allows for smaller engines and reduced weight. Each optimization on large aircraft has cascading benefits to other components, resulting in groundbreaking efficiency.

A century after the first commercial flight, the aviation industry has become a fixture of global transport…and of global emissions. Today, some 20,000 airplanes are in service around the world, producing at minimum 2.5 percent of annual emissions. With upwards of 50,000 planes expected to take to the skies by 2040—and take to them more often—fuel efficiency will have to rise dramatically if emissions are to be reduced.

This can be accomplished by:

  • Adopting the latest and most fuel-efficient aircraft;
  • Retrofitting existing aircraft with aerodynamic winglets, better engines, and lighter interiors;
  • Retiring older aircraft early; and
  • Operating existing aircraft with fuel-saving practices.

More dramatic redesigns of airplane bodies and sustainable jet fuels, such as those made from algae, are in development. Along with national and international regulation of the airline industry, they may help address the greenhouse gases that trail movement by flight.

Technical summaries for each solution will be available May 1, 2017.

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