Can flying geese offer cheaper airfare?

The way birds migrate has inspired a discovery of how to reduce the amount of jet fuel planes use.

The characteristic V formation that many species take when migrating long distances produces an effect called updraft. The air is pushed down by the bird ahead in formation, making it easier for the bird behind to create enough lift to keep going.

A team at Stanford University led by Professor Ilan Kroo suggests that airplanes do the same. The first jet in the V would essentially clear the way for easier flying for those behind.

This research isn’t new. Back in 1914 the German scientist Carl Wieselsberger first calculated the effects of updraft.

A French team studying pelicans found that flying in formation helped flocks fly 70% further than birds flying alone.

The Stanford team ran a simulation of three passenger jets leaving Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco rendezvousing over Utah before continuing on to the East Coast. They found the planes would use 15% less fuel, cutting the airlines’ major expense and carbon output in the process.

So will Ryanair slash rates even more by having their jets fly in formation to cheap holiday destinations, passing the savings to us along with cups full of ice water minus the water? Probably not. All the world’s flight paths would have to be rearranged, costing a huge amount and inevitably leading to some embarrassing near disaster. It is a cool idea, though.

Just a thought–I’d always heard that the V formation was all about dominance in the flock, with the strongest birds being closer to the front. Perhaps the reason the strongest go in front is to make it easier for the weaker ones. Having the leaders prove their strength actually helps the whole flock migrate.