Post-Pandemic High Speed Maritime Transport
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced domestic and international passenger airline travel to the point where airlines have been laying off flight staff and even management personnel. Many other industries and businesses not related to the airline industry have also experienced major downturns in customer demand, with the result that many businesses are closing their doors. The post-pandemic period will likely include an economic slowdown couple with a reduction in consumer spending as people seek low-cost goods and services, including low-cost intercity transportation.
While the pandemic has reduced the international passenger air transport industry to a fraction of its former self, aircraft manufacturers are also experiencing a major downturn in their business. The post pandemic period would likely witness a slow and economic recovery as businesses and industries seek to rebuild while financially stresses populations seek bargain prices for goods and services. In the area of intercity passenger transportation, more travelers would likely seek bargain travel options, thereby opening future business opportunities for service companies that specialize in offering fast, frequent and competitively-priced transportation services.
During the post-pandemic period, demand such passenger transportation services would likely surge across Southeast Asia between Indonesian and Malaysian coastal cities, with likewise demand surging along Brazil’s Atlantic coast. It is in such regions where introduction of a high-speed maritime transportation technology that travels above and close to the water surface could provide passenger transportation services between coastal cities. The post-pandemic period could provide opportunity to introduce wing-in-ground (W.I.G.) technology to commercial intercity passenger service in many regions around the world, competing with short-haul commercial air transport between cities not linked by high-speed passenger train services.
While the training of commercial airline pilots is costly, complex and time consuming, the training is less complex and less costly for future pilots seeking to operate wing-in-ground (W.I.G.) effect technology. While major airports charge substantial fees to land an airplane, W.I.G. planes can touch down on designated seaplane runways at a fraction of the cost and more safely that traditional sea planes that utilize comparatively short catamaran pontoons. When traveling above water at an elevation equivalent to 5% of wingspan, W.I.G planes consume about 1/3rd the fuel of the equivalent weight of aircraft traveling at the same speed.
When traveling at half the speed of a commuter plane flying at 10,000-feet or at 150-knots instead of at 300-knots, theoretical fuel consumption would calculate to 1/3rd x 1/8th x 1.5 = 1/16th that of the aircraft. Touching down on a seaplane runway and riding up a ramp at a coastal airport would allow battery-electric W.I.G. planes with take-off wheels to accelerate along a runway to become airborne, greatly reducing energy usage compared to accelerating on water to lift-off speed. Battery-electric W.I.G. planes would greatly exceed the travel range of battery-electric commuter planes and occupy a unique market niche.
Safety issues involving short-haul airplane services in some Asian countries could encourage a portion of the future short-haul passenger market to switch to W.I.G. plane short-haul services. The technology is built to maritime structural standards and could offer greater safety touching down in seaplane runways. Seaplanes touching down on water runways have crashed by going “nose-down” into the water, the likely result of comparatively short catamaran pontoons and center of gravity placed far forward. Forward placed short pontoons allow the plane’s tail to be pushed downward during acceleration for take-off, essential for seaplanes to become airborne.
W.I.G. planes can be built to greater length than seaplanes and use extreme length of pontoon hulls that greatly reducing any tendency for the plane to go “nose-down” into water during touchdown, assisted by center of gravity being located further rearward. During acceleration, increasingly rapid air dynamics circulates between water surface and each wing underside to effectively lift the plane’s fuselage and hulls above water surface, without need to lower the tail. W.I.G. planes built with wheels to allow acceleration on a paved coastal runway would lift above ground surface in a comparable way.
W.I.G. planes that use a single main wing that is wide at the leading edge and narrow at the trailing edge have potential to lift upward to 35% to 45% of wingspan, or 35 to 45-feet above water for an equivalent wingspan of 100-feet. At such elevation, fuel consumption increases to that of a conventional aircraft of equivalent weight flying at the same speed and same elevation. While peak fuel efficiency occurs when flying at elevation of 5% of wingspan, occurrence of sudden waves requires development of methods by which to keep the plane’s nose above water.
The installation of a small ground-effect wing built to fuselage width and located far forward of the fuselage is one option. It would be mounted on a transverse shaft and operate like a “free-wing”, tilting rapidly in response to waves to keep the vessel’s nose above water. A small airfoil mounted at wing’s leading edge would pull upward while shaft leverage would push its trailing edge downward toward water. Further investigation and refinement would be required into developing a forward ground-effect wing to be installed forward of the leading end of the fuselage, to respond to sudden large waves.
Larger vehicles that carry greater payload typically incur lower transportation per unit of cargo or per passenger by increasing the productivity of each crew member and each unit of transportation energy. Builders of W.I.G. vehicles have built models that carry 8 to 12-passengers, with a 50-seat vehicle built in South Korea. Historical transportation economics suggest a possible market for the services of a vehicle that carries 100 to 200-passengers in short-haul transportation services at very low per passenger ticket prices, involving trip duration of perhaps under 4-hours at speeds of up to 150-knots.
Post-pandemic target markets between coastal cities would include San Francisco – Los Angeles, New York City – Norfolk, Rio de Janeiro – Santos (Sao Paulo), Christchurch – Wellington, Sydney – Hobart, Sydney – Brisbane, Hong Kong – Taipei, Jakarta – Surabaya, Jakarta – Singapore, Shanghai – Busan, Colombo – Chennai, Mumbai – Goa, along with such links as Marseilles – Corsica, Marseilles – Barcelona, Rome – Palermo and numerous other links. The transportation service would offer the speed of a fast express train at substantially lower cost than airline ticket prices, with potential to attract ridership during the period of economic slowdown that will follow the pandemic lockdown period.
Several small companies are currently involved in ongoing development into W.I.G. plane technology. The builder at Singapore is developing a 24-seat vehicle while the German Tandem Wing Group is planning a 100-seat vehicle. A W.I.G. vehicle of 50-seat capacity was built in South Korea and would likely be assigned to military rather than commercial civilian application. The population of several coastal cities combined with the distance between them, along with an absence of high-speed train services provides opportunity to develop a market for above-the-water-surface, high-speed passenger transportation service in several locations around the world.
People would likely still be willing to travel following the pandemic period and as a result of an expected economic slowdown, would seek low cost intercity passenger transportation services. W.I.G. planes could operate several such services along several across-the-water short-haul routes, internationally.
Harry Valentine is a regular contributor to The Maritime Executive.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.