By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) - Tourists heading south for the winter may be transported to their dream destination in windowless airliners flying in formation like geese if Airbus accepts the advice of tomorrow's potential aircraft engineers.
The European planemaker is offering 30,000 euros (S$59,700) for the best idea drawn from proposals submitted by 2,350 students in 82 countries after launching a global competition for new concepts.
Airbus said on Thursday it had narrowed down the entries to five - not all of which may at first glance appeal to the travelling public, but which a spokeswoman said could lead to useful ways of thinking about aircraft design and engineering.
The proposals include a suggestion from a Spanish university for a windowless cabin. Despite the impact on passengers who prefer a window seat, the designers have found that an aircraft constructed this way would be more eco-efficient, Airbus said.
Among the other finalists, an Australian team from the University of Queensland has suggested building some of the materials used in the cabin out of castor plant natural fibres.
A Czech proposal would use electric motors to taxi the airplane - overcoming burning of jet fuel that the industry says costs billions of dollars and harms the environment - and Singapore students want to tap solar power for electricity.
Perhaps the most revolutionary concept is a U.S. proposal by students from Stanford University to adapt the 'V' formation used by geese and other migrating birds to fly long distances.
By slipstreaming behind the bird in front, the birds can save energy to fly further and take it in turns to lead.
The Stanford proposal calls for an "inverted V formation, building on the model of migrating birds to reduce energy consumption," Airbus said in a review of the final shortlist.
"This is not necessarily something we would exploit, but the idea and approach are interesting and the analysis is of high quality," Airbus spokeswoman Anne Galabert said.
Passenger planes are separated by minimum distances depending on their size to reduce the risk of collision and prevent turbulence from the wingtips of those directly in front.
A collision with a flock of geese was blamed for the loss of power that caused a US Airways jet to ditch in the Hudson River in January, yet the mystery of birds continues to fascinate designers after more than a century of powered flight.
"People have looked at this and conventional studies are based on the ordinary V formation, but the innovation here is that the students are looking at a backwards V," Galabert said.
Airbus says it launched the contest to challenge students in to seek innovative and green-friendly ideas that could ultimately shape the future of aviation. The finalists will present their ideas to a jury at the Paris Air Show in June.
Airbus, a unit of EADS, is in the midst of cutting 10,000 jobs amid a worsening recession, but is trying to recruit 300 engineers this year to help complete complex new projects.