BlueSky Business Aviation News
Approach To A Floating Airport  Terry Drinkard

t is always interesting to get feedback from knowledgeable people. Last week’s column on the potential of floating airports started an email conversation between Karl Swartz and me. I met Karl in 1991 (I think) when I was working at Boeing. Karl is extremely knowledgeable 
about aircraft, airlines, and just about everything to do with heavy jet transports. Among other achievements, Karl runs and wrote the Great Circle Mapper that I mentioned last time.

Among the many challenges associated with large infrastructure projects is how to generate benefits early in the program. That is, it shouldn’t require every floating airport in place to begin using the system. That creates entirely too much risk. It is much smarter to build one, and immediately put it into service to see what we got right in the design and what needs improvement.

Easy wins

There are a number of potential starter routes, but let us take a look at the US west coast to Hawaii. It is 2,084 nmi from San Francisco International to Honolulu International. The Boeing 737-700 flies this route. The Airbus A320, a close competitor, cannot. Ranges seem OK, but the devil is, as usual, in the details. If the A320 loses engine and cabin pressurization - which forces the airplane to fly below 10,000 feet, adversely impacting fuel economy on the remaining engine - then it can’t make Honolulu, which eliminates it from consideration on that route.

Redispatch for flexibility

With a floating airport stationed a thousand nautical miles out from San Francisco, the operators of A320 could perform a “redispatch,” where the flight plan shows an initial destination of Ocean Airport November, and as the airliner gets close enough to the actual destination, the company dispatcher “redispatches” the airplane on to Honolulu.

The A320 that gets

assigned to the route would still have to comply with ETOPS. With only one floating airport on the route, the distances are too great to fit within the 60 minute rule. Nevertheless, this use of the floating airport would add flexibility to the operations of those airlines flying from the US west coast to Hawaii. With two floating airports on the route, the ETOPS requirements could be dropped, but even one single floating airport would be useful.

Re-dispatch for fuel savings

Another one, perhaps even more useful, would be stationed around Latitude 45S Longitude 90W for redispatching aircraft on the route to Santiago, Chile from Sydney, Australia, or Auckland, New Zealand. Again, this is still for ETOPS rated airliners, and it works a bit differently. The point is onboard reserve fuel. With a floating airport on station, the airplane doesn’t have to carry quite as much fuel, a savings Karl calculates at about 1.5%. That may not sound like much, but it is on every flight. Moreover, as Karl points out, part of that trade can be fuel for revenue passengers or cargo, which can be a very nice trade, indeed.

Annual operating costs

There is also the question of annual operating costs for each floating airport. For our floating airport to be considered a viable alternate or for redispatch purposes, it must have a crew and medical facilities, it must have fueling facilities, etc. These things imply a significant logistical commitment. Which brings up resupply.

I would think that the least expensive way to resupply a floating airport would be a ship. There is no mode of transportation cheaper per ton mile than ships, not even rail. Unfortunately, some of these floating airports will be very far indeed from a port, meaning a long trip. Some may be in areas with frequent bad weather. For a facility stationed in the Roaring Forties, I think we can pretty much eliminate the idea of resupply by boat. Almost everything will have to come in by air, adding some cost.

Fortress of Solitude

Speaking of floating airports in areas with bad weather. If you look at a 60 minutes ETOPS map of the world, you can see that an airport at the North Pole would be a useful thing indeed. Or perhaps several strung around the pole. These airports would have to be designed to be frozen in every year. That isn’t the problem you might think. A number of wooden hulled sailing vessels have been frozen in the ice packs, somewhere crushed by the pressure of the ice, but, I think we can handle that with steel-reinforced concrete construction. This might prove to be a boon for arctic researchers.

Island airports

Karl and I also discussed the impact of island airports. I thought that it might always be cheaper to build on an island, if one is available. Karl thought not and had a really good argument as to why. Pitcairn Island, for example, is so steep and rugged that it does not have an airport at all. There are also environmental considerations. Building an airport is hugely disruptive to the native habitat and indeed, the habitat might never recover. This is an advantage of a floating airport that I had not considered.

Because of this and other advantages, it might make more sense to commission a floating airport and then move it off-shore of an island, or a deserted coast line, than to attempt to build on the land. That is quite a different outcome than I had originally envisioned.

Advantages for business aviation

Back to Hawaii for a moment. For us in business aviation to fully utilize our aircraft, which are rarely ETOPS rated, we need at least two floating airports, about 700 nautical miles apart. The first airport would be stationed about half way between Hawaii and San Francisco. One of the nice things about a floating airport is that it can be moved fairly easily. So, when the second floating airport is ready, the first one moves closer to Honolulu.

This will not, I think, be the case for the Sydney to Santiago route. That is a lot of open water that would require a floating airport every 700 to 800 nautical miles to support non-ETOPS business aviation aircraft. Currently, that route is pretty thin, so it would be much more difficult to justify economically the construction of seven or eight floating airports to support that route (as opposed to two to service the more heavily trafficked Hawaii route). There are better ways to get to Santiago from Down Under, perhaps up through French Polynesia and on to South America. The weather below 40 degrees latitude is pretty wild and windy; the old clipper ships used to sail there to make bring their cargos to port in the minimum amount of time. It’s worth avoiding, I think.

Growth of business aviation

Surely we would all agree that a world-wide system of floating airports, while it makes sense on a planet covered 70% by water, is an expensive undertaking. Making efforts to wring as much economic advantage as possible from the initial units makes a lot of sense. If such a program were to be accepted and implemented, we could expect a lot of advantages to accrue to business jet operators. Faster, safer transits, lower operating costs, more flexible use of our fleet, and expansion of our industry.

Yes, business aviation will grow even if all that changes is some floating airports are stationed at strategic locations on the world’s oceans. We will need FBOs on those airports, true, but that is not the biggest element. People are ready to fly to Europe and Asia in our aircraft. Currently, the airlines carry almost all of that business. With new infrastructure in place that is valuable to both airlines and business aviation, we in business aviation can win some of that business back.

It is an expensive proposition, that is true. However, the potential for growth is enormous, and that growth can more than pay for the improved infrastructure. More importantly, moving forward on a large global system like this has the potential to draw the world closer together.

Terry Drinkard is a Contract Structural Engineer based in Jacksonville, Florida whose interests and desire are being involved in cool developments around airplanes and in the aviation industry. He has held senior positions with Boeing and Gulfstream Aerospace and has years of experience at MROs designing structural repairs. Terry’s areas of specialty are aircraft design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and modification; lean manufacturing; Six-sigma; worker-directed teams; project management; organization development and start-ups. 

Terry welcomes your comments, questions or feedback. You may contact him via

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©BlueSky Business Aviation News |13th January 2011 | Issue #108
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