Airbus hints at narrowbody successor featuring folding wing tips

Airbus is developing an extended carbon composite wing with folding tips that might be used on its next-generation airliner in an effort to reduce fuel consumption and the environmental impact of the aviation sector.

According to Sue Partridge, manager of Airbus’s Wing of Tomorrow initiative, the European aircraft manufacturer is attempting to squeeze similar efficiency gains from the design as it hopes to benefit from future cutting-edge engines. She explained that this would result in longer, thinner wings.

The revised wings are a component of Airbus’s roadmap for the upcoming workhorse model, which is scheduled to enter production in the middle of the next decade. The most popular narrowbodies on the market today are decades-old designs from Airbus and Boeing Co. that have needed on improvements like new engines to maintain their sales.

Now manufacturers are embracing more radical ideas and materials to push fuel efficiency for their all-new models that remain more than a decade away from commercial service.

“This is an opportunity for us to experiment, for us to try more than one option, and for us to then do trades to see which is the best option,” said Partridge, who is also head of Airbus’s Filton site near Bristol, a hub of research and development as well as some wing manufacturing.

One challenge will be to produce the new wings on a large scale and at comparatively low cost, said Partridge. That’s because the single-aisle program for which they’re destined is churned out in much greater numbers than widebody models like the A350, which already uses composite-material wings.

Aircraft wings are among the most complex part of an aircraft, and Airbus has focused production of wings for most of its aircraft in the UK. From here they are then sent by Beluga transport aircraft or barge to final assembly lines around the world.

Boeing has also teased at a radical new wing design, called the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing concept, or TTBW, in collaboration with NASA. The idea is built around extra-long and super-thin wings, including stabilising struts, that spread over the top of the fuselage.

Partridge, who began as an apprentice at the site more than three decades ago, said a folding tip would allow planes to have longer wings while still being able to operate within existing airport infrastructure.

Folding wing tips already exist on the upcoming Boeing 777X jet that’s set to enter commercial service in 2025. The 11-foot (3.3 meters) tip is hoisted up with the help of an actuation system, allowing the aircraft to remain within the wingspan of the current 777 model when on the ground.

The A350 pioneered composite wings for Airbus, using layered carbon-fiber structures that are baked in giant ovens and are among the largest such structures in use on aircraft today. While Airbus has gained valuable expertise with its larger models, monthly production of narrowbodies is multiples of larger jets and they are put through far more daily flight cycles.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury has been increasingly vocal about plans for the company’s next-generation of single aisle models, due to enter into service between 2035 and 2040 and with 20-25 per cent better fuel consumption. Besides new wing designs, the program may feature open-rotor engines being developed by the CFM International consortium.


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