SEATTLE - The Boeing Company announced Monday that it will begin production of the new T7 'AirTrailer'. Initial sales include a company-record 22 units from the U.S. discount carrier AirSouth.
The T7 represents a new direction in commercial aircraft design, extending the cargo capacity of the current fleet of jetliners. Known as an "Articulated Extender", the concept has been around in military aviation and the trucking industry for years. The T7 works similarly to a standard automobile trailer, attaching to a hitch on the rear of a jet aircraft.
Members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) have raised concerns about the safety of the design. "It's a trailer, for heaven's sakes!" exclaims ALPA spokesman Pierre Closterman. "Landing a big jet is difficult enough - we'll need extra runway, wider taxi areas, not to mention hundreds of hours of training."
Industry experts dismiss the pilot's concerns, citing years of research conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for airline manufacturers. Currently the FAA has only approved the T7 for carrying cargo, although approval of a passenger model is expected in mid 2005.
"The T7 is actually safer then a conventional passenger jet," says Eric Hartmann, spokesman for AirSouth. "Since the unit is un-powered, there is no aviation fuel to ignite in the unlikely case of an accident." Airline security experts also point out that the design is virtually hijack-proof since the cockpit crew is physically separated. High-risk passengers could be segregated to the rear compartment.
Industry executives have eagerly anticipated the arrival of the T7. By adding T7 units to existing routes, air carriers expect to realize billions in savings. The extenders can be added at times of peak demand, allowing the airlines to increase passenger loads without costly additional flights. Baggage could be offloaded to the cargo unit, and passengers with discount tickets would be bumped from economy class into the cargo area.
"They may not like traveling as baggage, but it's better than getting bumped and missing the flight completely," explains Hartmann. Surveys show that airline passengers are willing to forgo luxuries such as meals, larger seats, and pressurized cabins if it saves them money.