A Very Peculiar Patent

I’ll be off to Malaysia for a teaching commitment tomorrow. I frequently enjoy the comfort of an Emirates A380, but boarding the aircraft is not an appealing part of the journey.

At Manchester Airport, A380s always depart from Gate 12, where the ‘holding pen’ for passengers isn’t really big enough for the superjumbo, despite the addition of a funny little overflow room. I’ve never yet seen any evidence that the good people at Manchester Airport actually know how to get everyone aboard an Airbus A380 in a timely manner, and their efforts can get a little bit frantic as the time of departure draws near.

That’s where a recent patent for Airbus (filed in February 2013 and approved in November last year) comes to the rescue. Patent US 9,193,460, catchily titled “Method for Boarding and Unloading of Passengers of an Aircraft with Reduced Immobilization Time of the Aircraft, Aircraft and Air Terminal for its Implementation”, proposes a detachable cabin module that passengers would be able to board before the inbound aircraft arrives at the gate. The outbound pod takes the place of the inbound pod and as soon as the aircraft has refuelled it’s up, up and away. Cleverly, pods may have a different configuration, such as altering the blend between economy and business class seating. 

Airbus modular aircraft

An illustration from the Airbus modular aircraft concept [US patent 9,193,460]

It’s to be hoped that the removable pod concept allows better cabin cleaning than present day efforts, too.

Higher aircraft utilisation is the best way to achieve profit. It’s one reason why low-cost airlines managed to run rings around their full-service counterparts in the 1990s, remaining profitable while charging a fraction of the ticket price. Put simply, an aircraft doesn’t earn money while it’s on the ground, so airlines are looking to minimise the turn-around time: hence the Airbus patent.

As ideas go, passenger pods aren’t really all that new. Back in March 1960, Mechanix Illustrated ran a cover story that showed a passenger module detaching from a doomed airliner, with parachutes streaming behind it. “Escape pods can prevent needless air crash death,” the article announced.

Mechanix Illustrated cover

Mechanix Illustrated cover,  March 1960

Internal arrangement of escape pods, Mechanix Illustrated

Tough luck if you were visiting the galley or the washroom at the moment of separation, by the way.

There was also the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane (or, for the military, the CH-54 Tarhe), a helicopter that could carry a variety of cargo pods. It first flew in 1962.

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

Far from being outdone, Boeing recently came up with a monstrous freighter that could be taxied into place above a row of shipping containers, after which it would squat down into place like a hen settling on a clutch of eggs. US 9,205,910 is dated December 8th of last year.

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Too bad that the most famous pod-swapping modular aircraft of them all had arrived way back in 1964, albeit only in a TV show…

Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2 and a selection of pods.

There really is nothing new under the Sun, is there? Well, it worked for Malcom P. McLean, back in the 1950s, when he was looking for a more efficient way to load and unload freight from ships… so why can’t the “box that changed the world” also work for air transport?

Of course, if Manchester Airport won’t invest in decent facilities to accommodate five hundred passengers in comfort while they wait to board an A380, they certainly aren’t going to invest in a special gantry that lifts tubes full of people and clips them into aircraft… which renders the Airbus thing a little bit pointless.

Airport terminal equipped with pod swapping machinery

Airport operators are going to love paying for all this extra infrastructure… [Airbus illustration from US patent 9,193,460]

Meanwhile, perhaps the neatest idea to cut turn-around times was the flip-up cinema-style aircraft seat. If fitted on the seats adjacent to the aisle, it meant that the passenger need not hold up everybody else while he or she tries to get organised before sitting down.

Those haven’t seen the light of day, either.

A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.