Future Tense

Bring the Flying-V Hype Down to Earth

Media coverage suggests the V-shaped plane will make air travel more environmentally friendly. That’s wrong.

Rendering of the Flying-V
The Flying-V. KLM

After a tough year in aviation—the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX after two fatal crashes, the crashing of airline computer systems across the U.S., the announcement of the end of the superjumbo Airbus A380—we needed some good news about commercial flight. It arrived in the form of a revolutionary future airliner.

In early June, CNN swooned over the story of an innovative airplane design called the Flying-V, funded by the Amsterdam-based KLM. This is an airliner with a titillating new shape, summed up by its eponymous letter. According to early reports, the Flying-V will match the capacity of current wide-body jetliners such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, but there’s a twist. Two aisles run down two separate fuselages, which comprise the wings themselves. (That means half the window seats will stare out at doppelganger window seats across a modicum of thin air.)

The idea of a V-shaped plane is not exactly new, but KLM has indicated fresh interest in making this geometry the vanguard in commercial flight. Notably, the Flying-V promises greater fuel efficiency by harnessing “synergy” between the wings and the body of the plane.
Outlets from Boing Boing and Travel + Leisure to Maxim latched onto this story, quoting and requoting CNN copy and recycling striking illustrations of the concept plane—as if it were already hooked up to a jet bridge and ready for passengers. Ready to fly.

But there’s a curious thing about the Flying-V. All this buzz around a futuristic aircraft really has everything to do with the Anthropocene—our current turning point in geological history, an inflection defined by destructive human impact.

The stories of the Flying-V were consistently framed around a desire for the sustainability of commercial flight. Every article highlighted how the new aircraft promises up to 20 percent greater fuel efficiency, and multiple pieces noted current too-high global carbon dioxide emissions by way of celebrating the new design. The subtext of all this reporting is that air travel as we know it wreaks havoc on the environment. This is evident from the interruption of bird migration routes and runway spill-offs to carbon emissions in the atmosphere and voracious fossil fuel consumption. Front-page news items about the Flying-V all but admit that air travel is exorbitantly wasteful, and reaching a crisis point. And yet, in these stories commercial flight is taken as a given, something to continue unabated.

Media coverage of the Flying-V turns out to be fixated on an alternative present, even as it alleges to be about a sustainable future form of flight, in “20 to 30 years.” All the hype is really focused on how we feel about commercial flight—and the environment—right now. To jump several decades into the future as if it will basically be the same is a sign of bad faith: as if admitting that no progress will be made, at all, and we’ll still be tinkering with our fates. As such, the story of this imaginary airplane is also about our inability to conceptualize the Anthropocene as a real problem that we might engage in the nearer future, through more pragmatic steps and in less flamboyant fashion. It’s not just about a technological quick fix or slight adjustment to an existing situation. Rather, the Anthropocene requires humans on a large scale to respond radically, through an entire realignment of how our species understands itself and interacts with the planet and its myriad other inhabitants.

Given the realities of commercial aircraft these days—the stubborn rivalry of the twin workhorses the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737; the trembling of the still-grounded 737 MAX (not coincidentally also sold on a promise of greater fuel efficiency); the end of jumbo jets—we have reason to be seriously skeptical of any venture that would significantly change the shape of commercial aircraft. Commercial air travel as we know it is too entrenched and settling down ever deeper into a sheer monotype: twin-engine airliners, small-to-medium size, geared to worldwide productivity. Costs and retraining time are prohibitive factors to any serious reimagining of flight.

And speaking of costs: The fine print of the Flying-V news explains that this isn’t a “new plane” at all—at least, not yet—but rather a certain large company (KLM) funding research and design for the idea of a new plane. Funding is key, and why some environmental thinkers prefer the name Capitalocene for our current epoch: It puts a point on the fantasy of vast amounts of capital accumulated by multinational conglomerates or powerful sole owners, capital which then might be channeled in just the right way as if to magically and precisely fix the problems borne by modernity.

Of course, capital doesn’t work like this, as if it can jump the future or snap its fingers and get something done at once (build a wall, invent a new plane, provide Wi-Fi for all, go to Mars). No, capital spreads out but gets unevenly distributed; it exploits many people while elevating a very few. Capital builds on itself but not with any other goal in mind. Capital doesn’t care about sustainability, but amassing while it can. Or put another way, while air travel is concerned with real origins and destinations, capital doesn’t need to go anywhere in order to develop. Maybe it doesn’t even need a world at all.

Finally, we must talk about the name: Flying-V. A reference to the Gibson “Flying-V” electric guitar, it renders the whole enterprise akin to glam entertainment. The name conjures Lenny Kravitz, or maybe Eddie Van Halen, at some epic show in the past. As if this is all just a flashy rock concert, a mass spectacle that we might wake up from tomorrow morning, hung over and saying what a great time it was. And in a sense, it was.

As a brief piece of quasi-news that circulated online for a day or two, the Flying-V story becomes part of the Anthropocene in another way. It is evidence of the weirdly timeless drift of the internet, the lazy yet relentless expansion of circuits and devices, nodes and wires, screens and buttons, satellites and cell towers: all the infrastructure and apparatus that pins us to this place and time while we simultaneously confront the horror of a horizon past which all these things will become obsolete, the internet a fading memory of a past of seeming plenty. Where we cataloged all our hopes and fears, where we even stored our airplanes of the future, airplanes that would show we’d learned and adjusted our behaviors to live more sensitively in the world. But it turned out we were only hastening the world’s end as we know it, by insisting that everything remain the same—even as we thought we were planning a better future way of flying, of living.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.