One speed merchant's flight of fancy

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The Independent Online

By Danny Penman

12 April 2000

When Richard Noble delivers his speech at next week's Institute of Directors' conference at the Albert Hall in London, he does not expect a rapturous welcome. He will castigate the audience for being unimaginative and short-sighted and accuse them of unconcern about Britain's industrial future. But, most of all, he will criticise them for failing to back his new aeroplane, which, he says, will revolutionise air travel.

Mr Noble, the former land speed record holder and driving force behind ThrustSSC, the first car to break the sound barrier, is planning to build a flying taxi aimed at slashing the cost of air travel. If his dream comes true, you'll be able to book a five-seat taxi plane over the internet, turn up at the airport and fly to Paris as easily as booking a taxi. His air taxis will be as cheap per mile as black cabs and will offer the speed and comfort of private jets.

"In five years, you'll be able to turn up and take off. It will be as simple as that," says Mr Noble. "This internet-style decentralised way of travelling is the way the world's going and it's exactly what people want. Our project is following the trend. The expensive part of this project - the 7,800 airfields in Europe and North America - already exists. All that's needed are our aircraft.''

Congestion at grid-locked hub airports such as Heathrow is costing businesses hundreds of millions of pounds a year in lost time and revenue. Dell Computer reckons airport delays costs it £6m in lost revenue a year from lost executive hours.

Mr Noble says the potential air taxi market is vast, at up to $35bn a year in passenger revenues. He estimates a full-fledged service would need 16,000 taxi planes worldwide, worth a further $25bn eventually. For Noble, even a small slice of this market would be significant.

The problems of conventional air travel seem likely to become worse. In 1970 flights from London to Paris took 50 minutes. Now they take nearly 90 minutes and this is rising year on year.

Already, at least eight European airports are at or near capacity for most of the operating day, this includes such hubs as Heathrow and Frankfurt. At least 30 more will reach full capacity by 2010. Mr Noble says that his plane the Farnborough F1 - will bypass this congestion by using smaller airports. In Britain, few people are more than 20 minutes' drive from the country's 300 airports. Across Europe and North America, passengers will, at least in principle, be able to choose from those 7,800 airports.

But decentralising and speeding up air travel is only part of the picture. Mr Noble's plane will also be relatively cheap to operate because of new materials and technology. This will ensure it flies for longer between services and allows pilots and owners to work their planes for longer, at a cost to passengers of £1 per mile. Spread over three or four passengers, that would bring routine short-haul flights to within the range of vast numbers of people.

Advances in avionics will also help slash the cost of using the £1.6m F1. The plane requires only one pilot, navigation is via the global positioning system's network of satellites, and improved "collision awareness systems" would allow the skies, in principle, to be safely crammed with aircraft on conflicting flight paths. "The world has the airports and the technology to build a completely distributed travel machine," says Mr Noble. "The only thing missing is the aircraft and that is what we're going to supply."

A small roster of high-technology companies has already started eyeing up the plane and a few are backing the project. Unisys is writing the software allowing planes to be booked over the internet. Dell has supplied the workstations on which the plane's designs are being finalised, and Slough Estates has donated factory space for the prototypes to be built in.

As ever, the linchpin of the project is securing a steady supply of finance and Mr Noble has an innovative answer to that too. He is taking advantage of the 1995 changes in finance legislation which allowed clubs to raise equity finance from members. Although designed to allow steam railway preservation societies to raise money for new rolling stock, by issuing shares to members, it also permits innovative high-technology start-ups to get off the ground.

"It's a way of bypassing the City which has a monopoly control of capital in this country," says Mr Noble. "We've now got a project that is already almost self-financing. In the last 30 days we've received £80,000 in investment. Our running costs at present are £40,000 per month but we're still building up. When we're back on schedule, our costs will be £150,000 per month."

So far, Mr Noble has hired 22 people to work on the project and "hasn't missed a pay day yet". He expects to expand to 30 in the near future. Although Boeing and Cessna are moving into the market for small taxi planes, their planes are not as far advanced as the F1. The companies are still at the concept stage and have no finalised designs. One dark horse in the race is Toyota. The company is planning a consumer-level private plane, whichcould double as an air-taxi. Mr Noble is planning to license the F1 design rather than build it himself. Successful wind-tunnel tests have been done and, if all goes according to plan, the F1 will be ready for test flights by 2002, certification in 2003 and in production by 2004.

Mr Noble estimates he will need to raise £10m to produce the first fully functional F1. To complete the certification procedures will require a further £5m. It's a tall order and one he does not underestimate. "If you are going to do something like this in Britain then you're on your own and the whole organisation has to fight every millimetre of the way," he says. "Let up for a moment and you are lost, and all those people on Government salaries who knock off at 5pm will tell you it was always a waste of time.

"This project is do-able. The question is, is it do-able in Britain?"