Airbus experiments with formation flights to save jetfuel

A couple of years ago, Airbus talked about the possibility of planes flying together to reduce fuel consumption. They just made it happen. Let’s talk more about this.

The Airbus Fello’Fly Programme

The fello’fly programme was first talked about at Dubai Airshow 2019 by Airbus. fello’fly aims to demonstrate the technical, operational and commercial viability of two aircraft flying close together during long-haul flights. This collaborative activity has the potential to make an impact on commercial aircraft’s environmental performance. Not to forget, reduced fuel consumption will help the bottom line of the airline as well.

fello’fly draws inspiration from the “V-shaped” flight pattern of migrating geese. This technique is known as wake energy retrieval – or surfing the air upwash of a lead bird. During commercial aircraft operations, air upwash enables a follower aircraft to benefit from the free lift, resulting in less engine thrust and, as a result, reduced fuel consumption.A technical solution developed by Airbus ensures aircraft remain safely positioned at a steady altitude throughout “paired” flight. The uplift from the wake has shown it can drive at least a 5% reduction in CO2 emissions per trip. Here is an infographic Airbus produced on this demonstrator.

a white airplane flying in the sky

A couple of days ago, Airbus performed the first long-haul demonstration of formation flight in general air traffic regulated transatlantic airspace with two A350 aircraft flying three kilometres apart from each other, with the flights being conducted between Toulouse, France and Montreal, Canada. The “final demonstration” test flight took place on November 9,  2021, involving two A350 test aircraft, MSN1 and MSN59, with the former as the leader aircraft and the latter as the follower.

As per Airbus, over 6 tons of CO2 emissions were saved on the trip, confirming the potential for more than a 5% fuel saving on long-haul flights.

On this occasion, Sabine Klauke, Chief Technical Officer at Airbus, said

This demonstration flight is a concrete example of our commitment to making our decarbonisation roadmap a reality. It also speaks to how collaboration across the industry will be key to making this happen. We have received a strong level of support for this project from our airline and air traffic partners, plus regulators. The opportunity to get this deployed for passenger aircraft around the middle of this decade is very promising. Imagine the potential if fello’fly was deployed across the industry!

The next step for this programme is to get the support of the authorities so that this new operational concept can be certified and ultimately enable airlines to reduce their fuel burn and CO2 emissions.

In a world where airline C-Suites are obsessed with saving money on fuel consumption (which is up to 40% of the cost of an airline!), I am sure someone is thinking more about making this work once this is technically and commercially available. But having said that, there will be the obvious question of airlines wondering what’s in it for us for sharing their resources with other airlines. Or will it work on an IOU system where some days you become the leader and some days the follower? I guess that is a bridge to cross when we get there.


Airbus demonstrated their fello’fly programme by performing a real-world flight with two A350 aircraft between Toulouse and Montreal. Both the planes crossed the Atlantic, one right behind the other, which led to fuel savings for the second aircraft. This also meant the second aircraft saved itself significant CO2 emissions in the process—all of this, inspired by the migratory birds.

What do you think of the Airbus’ fello’fly concept, and do you think we could see this implemented on a more widespread basis?

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About Ajay

Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe. Ajay is a frequent contributor and commentator on the media as well, including ET Now, BBC, CNBC TV18, NDTV, Conde Nast Traveller and many other outlets.

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