Small Air Transport
What is Small Air Transport and what are the challenges?
Small Air Transport (SAT) deals with small general aviation and commuter/feeder aircraft and their technology needs. SATs are, in our Clean Sky definition, ‘fixed wing’ aircraft with between 4 and 19 seats, and have the agility to take off and land in tiny regional or even remote utility airports. They are frugal when it comes to fuel consumption, have fast turnaround times, and can be deployed on routes that would not be geographically or economically viable by rail or road, nor by larger aircraft such as regional turboprops or jets. It is not just about their size - it is about their operational and societal functions too. In fact, SATs help ‘connect the dots’ and serve local communities and locations that would otherwise be isolated or confined to much slower road or rail transport, and in many areas of the world where rail is not an option as the infrastructure simply does not exist.
To meet the Flightpath 2050 target whereby "90% of travellers within Europe are able to complete their journey, door-to-door within 4 hours", SAT aircraft plugs a gap that many other travel paradigms struggle to fill. Therefore, for many passengers and for many locales, SAT aircraft fits perfectly and meets a need that would otherwise go unserved.
One might even think of SAT aircraft as a low cost/short range version for cargo transport, enabling to transport standard pallets (LD3, half pallet) that allow it to be used through inter modality with large narrow and wide body airlines in cargo version, delivering goods from major hubs to remote areas and vice-versa.
The challenge Clean Sky 2 seeks to address is to reboot this somewhat neglected segment of the aeronautical manufacturing world. Europe was once host to a rich spectrum of small aircraft manufacturers, but much of that manufacturing infrastructure and science has disappeared. On the positive side, SAT's technology glass is still half-full (in fact among the EU ‘New Member States’ there is strong capability in the SAT segment) - so it is a case of topping up the glass from TRL 3 to 6.
Clean Sky 2's intention is to boost a range of SAT technologies that have stagnated at TRL3 or 4 and advance them through further research and experimental demonstration.
The aircraft and systems manufacturers already on-board within Clean Sky 2 propose to develop, validate and integrate key technologies on dedicated ground demonstrators and flying aircraft demonstrators at an ITD level. By doing so, the Clean Sky 2 ecosystem can engage with the wider supply chain and industry that supplies to this sector of aviation, pulling in new capabilities from other sectors that can provide new impetus such as from the worlds of automotive and electronics.
The SAT Initiative proposed in Clean Sky 2 represents the R&T interests of European manufacturers of small aircraft used for passenger transport and for small cargo transport aircraft belonging to EASA´s CS-23 regulatory base (EASA is the European Aviation Safety Agency).
Clean Sky 2's SAT Programme includes more than 40 industrial companies, many of which are SMEs, accompanied by dozens of research centres and universities. The community covers the full supply chain, including aircraft integrators, engine and systems manufacturers and research organisations.
The approach builds on already accomplished or currently progressing FP6 and FP7 projects, focusing on four key areas of societal benefit:
- Multimodality and passenger choice;
- Safer and more efficient small aircraft operations;
- Lower environmental impact (noise, fuel, energy);
- Revitalisation of the European small aircraft industry.
To date, most key technologies for small aircraft have reached an intermediate level of maturity (TRL3-4), but need further research and experimental demonstration to reach either TRL5 or TRL6.
The aircraft and systems manufacturers involved in SAT are engaged in developing, validating and integrating key technologies on dedicated ground demonstrators and flying aircraft demonstrators at an ITD level up to TRL6.
The activities defined, agreed and scheduled for the technology demonstrators will be performed within the Clean Sky 2 ITDs for Airframe, Engines and Systems while overall management, design configuration and integration activities will be performed via the SAT transversal area (by means of its Grant Agreement for Members (GAM).
Tomorrow’s challenge, today’s call to action
Small Air Transport fulfils a market segment that cannot be filled by other types of aircraft, nor can be addressed by other modes of transport. This provides route agility that is increasingly important in a fast-changing European landscape.
The actionable advantage is that there is unexploited manufacturing potential in Europe, especially focused around what used to be called the ‘New Member States’, that could be fortified with the right investment in new technologies. SAT aircraft could even be designed for single pilot operations to reduce operating costs, and on a different note, they solve the problem of "thin routes" where customer demand between two particular airports is modest and cannot fill larger aircraft.
Major airport hubs are reaching capacity but regional airports are underused. This excess capacity at regional airports is just waiting to be put to good use – but there are not enough SATs to service that segment at a contemporary level of product quality, as many aircraft in service in this category are a bit dated. Development of new products in the SATs class of air travel would help ease traffic at primary and secondary airports.