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How quickly would a commercial airline be able to integrate significant advances in technology into its fleet?

Specifically I am interested in large commercial airlines and advances in technology that would substantially increase the efficiency of fuel consumption in passenger aircraft, but I don't have enough of a background in commercial aviation to make an educated guess and have not been able to find a comparable historical example. If someone could provide me with either it would be much appreciated.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a difficult question to answer because it depends what the 'magic bullet' actually is and how the airframe, engines and/or avionics have to be modified. The 787 had a lot of new materials and technology and just certifying it apparently took 8 years. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Mar 18 '15 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ The times of significant advances ended half a century ago. Now any advance is incremental; however, given the lifetime of a modern transport aircraft of 30 years, it does accumulate over such a long time. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Mar 18 '15 at 20:24
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    $\begingroup$ Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. $\endgroup$ – Danny Beckett Mar 18 '15 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ @DannyBeckett I do not agree, maintenance and replacement are well documented activities. You can argue that is too broad, but I can hardly see how this question invites opinions. $\endgroup$ – Federico Mar 19 '15 at 6:36
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It depends on the advance. Generally, there are three ways how airliners can be improved:

  1. Operations and procedures: This can be as simple as faster turn-around times so aircraft will be more profitable, or as complicated as doing away with airways which would help to shorten trips, but depends on changes in regulations which have been in place for decades.
  2. Better equipment: All parts of an aircraft are designed to be individually replaceable, and swapping old engines for newer, more fuel efficient ones will bring already two thirds of the efficiency benefits of replacing the whole aircraft. Other examples could be less heavy furnishings or more precise instruments. But there are limits, and every change needs to be approved by regulatory authorities.
  3. Newer aircraft models: This brings aerodynamics, engines and equipment up to the status quo, and is done by airlines on a regular basis to improve both their attractiveness and their profitability. Examples are Singapore Airlines, which pride themselves on an average age of their fleet of just seven years, or Vueling, which thanks to a recent expansion has lower seat-mile cost than all their competitors.

Generally, the days of dramatic technology advances are long gone. Today, years of research are justified by single-digit percentage advances, and a new development like the A380 is started with a promise of just 15% less seat-mile cost when compared to airliners which are two decades old by the time the new plane is put into service.

To answer your question directly: Changes which produce meaningful improvements need years of preparation and testing for approval by the authorities. Quick gains are not possible anymore.

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If pressed (each plane is grounded until it is installed)? As fast as it's maintenance guys can pump them out per plane.

Doing so would require getting the plane to the shop and having the mechanics installing the "advance" which could take a few days. They would then also take the chance to do some of the regular checks.

If not then the install would be scheduled along with the other regular check already planned in its lifetime depending on how labour intensive the installation is.

Before all that can actually happen the guys doing the install must be trained and the supervisors must be able to certify the installation, that will also take time.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the regulatory approval from the FAA, EASA etc. will take a lot longer than the installation $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Mar 18 '15 at 16:47
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Immediately in some cases.

In general, a large carrier will have a heterogeneous fleet in which the most recently purchased aircraft will be more performant and fuel efficient than the older aircraft. A carrier can generally "buy" fuel efficiency simply by selling older airframes and buying new ones with new engines.

Another way carriers can improve fuel efficiency is by how they load the airframe. Seats and other fixtures onboard are removable and the carrier can reconfigure aircraft in various way and improve the way the equipment is constructed to make it lighter. Carriers are always looking for upgrades that will lighten the load or balance the load better to improve fuel efficiency.

There are also computational ways to fly more efficiently. For example, if the flight plan and route planning can make use of winds aloft more efficiently significant fuel savings can be realized. Advanced software can also be used to tune engines or fly the aircraft so that engines use fuel more efficiently.

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    $\begingroup$ Buying a new aircraft is hardly "immediate". According to Wikipedia, if you order a current-model Boeing 737 today, you're at the back of a waiting list of over 1500 planes. At the moment, they're building about 400 planes a year, so that equates to a 3-4 year wait. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 19 '15 at 9:36
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I would try to give some structure to the answer. Firstly, take into account that any technological innovation on the airplane itself it is not performed by the airline, is done by the airplane manufacturer like in car industry.

For giving you a more concrete answer I would divide in three:

  • Only renewing improving the fleet by a new one. A way to get the latest technology is just by selling to other airlines or transport companies the old models and buy new airplanes. Typical life span of a airplane is aroud 20-30 years, so that will be how often airlines do that.
  • Another way is implementing retrofits, airplane manufactures offer some improvements as retrofit of the airplane like the A320 sharklet. However you need a business case, not all retrofits are implemented because they are not interesting, apart from the cost of buying from the manufacturer the retrofit the airline will have the airplane in ground during the retrofit. Usually to maximize the business case the airline waits until a complete overhaul (revision) is perform on the airplane to take the advantage is already grounded.
  • Finally: as soon as possible. Just take a look to the recent battery issues on B787 airplanes were grounded during a long period to avoid reducing safety standards. When this kind of situations happen, airlines try to implement technology changes (or just modifications) as soon as possible. Business case is really possitive...

Finally, I think the right question is... who pays the modification in the last situation?

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