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When it Comes to Fuel Efficiency, Boeing is “Winging it”

“Ladies and gentlemen… please remain seated while we fold up the wings and taxi to the gate.”

If you think this sounds like the Bizarro World future of air travel, think again. Boeing (BA) wants to make “foldable wings” a reality by 2020.

The obvious questions that spring to mind are “why?” and “how?”

Well, for an industry that’s constantly striving to improve fuel efficiency and cut costs, Boeing’s aim is to squeeze out more miles for its bucks.

No problem there.

However, you’d be forgiven for being skeptical about whether Boeing can pull this off, given yet another setback for the company’s troubled Dreamliner…

Another Dreamliner Drama

As I write, Boeing just encountered another battery malfunction in one of its 787 Dreamliners – the same issue that forced regulators to ground Boeing’s entire Dreamliner fleet almost exactly a year ago.

During the three-month shutdown, Boeing redesigned the battery system before the fleet was put back into operation.

But in Narita today, a battery cell on a Japan Airlines Dreamliner leaked and produced smoke.

While it doesn’t appear as serious as Boeing’s previous problems with the battery, it’s certainly troubling, given that the Federal Aviation Administration signed off on Boeing’s redesigned battery system last year.

So what chance does Boeing have with foldable wings then?

Fuel, Not Flash

Given airlines’ need for greater fuel efficiency, Boeing’s latest innovation is less about Dreamliner style and more about nitty-gritty substance.

Modeled on the 777 aircraft, the 777X is a twin-aisle, twin-engine plane, designed for long-haul flights.

The 777-8X model would hold 350 passengers, with a range of 10,700 miles, while the 777-9X model would stuff 400 people into the aircraft and be capable of travelling 9,400 miles.

With such huge distances, it’s no surprise that fuel efficiency has risen to the top of Boeing wishlist.

The company says the 777X will use 20% less fuel than the current Boeing 777 and be 12% more fuel efficient than its rivals’ similar offerings.

But how?

In a word: wingspan.

The Wings That “Shrink”

With longer wings proven to boost fuel efficiency, Boeing’s 777X will boast a wingspan of 223 feet.

However, that’s several feet longer than the current 777 aircraft, which would pose a problem when parking the planes at various airport gates.

So here’s the genius part…

The wings will “shrink” when the plane is on the ground.

More specifically, the ends of each wing will fold upward, thus shrinking the wingspan by 10 feet on each side.

Unlike the immobile winglets at the end of the wings on some existing aircraft, Boeing’s folding design means the plane can be adapted for both flight and while on the ground.

Boeing777XFoldingWingsPlanePic2

On top of innovative, energy-efficient wings, Boeing will also use the new GE9X engine from General Electric’s (GE) GE Aviation unit to boost fuel efficiency.

Coming Soon to an Airport Near You…

Having conducted low-speed wind tunnel tests last month in Farnborough, England, Boeing is now carrying out high-speed wind tests at its Transonic Wind Tunnel facility in Seattle.

The next step is to conduct noise, ice and propulsion tests, as Boeing works toward the final configuration of the aircraft in 2015.

So far, the company has received 280 advance orders for the 777X, with 150 alone coming from Emirates at the Dubai Airshow in November. The ultimate goal is to begin deliveries in 2020.

Ahead of the tape,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

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