June 19 - Swiss researchers have released futuristic designs for attachable modular aircraft that will allow passengers to board a plane at a railway station and disembark at their destination without ever setting foot in an airport. EPFL says its Clip Air project is no flight of fancy. Jim Drury reports.
Catching a plane could one day be as easy as boarding a train, according to researchers at Swiss technology institute, EPFL. Their Clip Air planes would comprise a flying wing containing the engines, cockpit, fuel and landing gear, that would attach to capsules containing passengers or cargo. Those capsules would have been boarded at a railway station and driven to the airport along conventional track. Flights could thus be boarded without passengers ever stepping inside an airport. Chief designer is Claudio Leonardi, who showed off his blueprint at the Paris Air Show. SOUNDBITE (French) CLAUDIO LEONARDI, LEADER OF EPFL'S CLIP-AIR PROJECT, SAYING: "A passenger who travels in a Clip Air capsule finds himself in a plane while travelling from the station to the airport. Then at the airport he'll be clipped under the wings of the plane, which will transport him to the next airport... and then unclipped, and carried right to the city centre." EPFL say three capsules could carry 450 people and by mixing and matching freight and passengers according to demand, the days of half-empty flights would be over. Leonardi says companies could eventually own their own capsules instead of private jets. SOUNDBITE (French) CLAUDIO LEONARDI, LEADER OF EPFL'S CLIP-AIR PROJECT, SAYING: "The next stage would be to leave the airport zone inside the capsules and return directly to a company's offices. Companies would be able to own a plane which doesn't have wings, which doesn't have a cockpit, and which doesn't have a motor." But could this really be the future of air travel or is it just a flight of fancy? Analyst and former pilot Chris Long has his doubts. SOUNDBITE (English) CHRIS LONG, EDITOR CAT EUROPEAN AFFAIRS AND FORMER MILITARY AND CIVIL PILOT, SAYING: "You're still going to have to check-in and go through all that procedure and you are having to enter the transport system at some point, whether that's in a train station or at an airport....Then if you look at the sheer aerodynamics of it....aeroplanes are designed to be super efficient. To take a basic shape like that and strap things underneath it is not the most aerodynamic way of building a flying solution." Leonardi admits there will also be security issues to overcome. Clip Air passengers might indeed have to enter the terminal to be checked. The most pressing concern is getting the designs off the ground - literally. The team plan to build and test a six metre long flying model powered by mini-reactors. The plan remains a long-term goal and it could be at least a decade before the design comes to fruition. But EPFL are convinced there's a future for this piece of blue sky thinking.