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Airports of the future might have circular runways

Researchers at the National Aerospace Laboratory in the Netherlands think they might have come up with a new design concept that could revolutionize air travel: circular runways.

Under the guidance of visionary researcher Henk Hesselink, it’s called the “Endless Runway Project.” And it’s really not as crazy as it might sound at first.

To see why circular runways might be a good idea, consider our current, near-universal paradigm of straight runways. It works pretty well, right? Well, yes — most of the time, anyway.

One of the major downsides of the straight runway paradigm is its susceptibility to crosswinds, which occur whenever the direction of the prevailing wind is not parallel to the runway.

If crosswinds are strong enough, they can interfere with plane landings and takeoffs. For strong winds that are pretty close to parallel with the runway, it’s not a big issue. But the larger the angle between prevailing winds and the runway, the worse the interference from a strong crosswind.

The overall result of a strong crosswind can be a scary landing, like this one:

When the interference is too strong, flights get cancelled or delayed. And strong crosswinds blowing perpendicular to a runway can sometimes shut down an entire airport, especially if it’s a smaller airport without many runways.

It’s important to note that when this happens, it’s not just a problem for the affected airport: flight delays and cancellations are network-level problems, meaning their effects are felt at other airports as well (because all those delayed and cancelled flights had destinations).

Now maybe you’re starting to see why circular runways might be a great idea: no matter what the strength and direction of prevailing winds, there are always at least two sections of the circle where the wind will align with the direction of the plane. So you just send planes to those two spots for takeoffs and landings, and presto: no more crosswind problem.

To get an idea of what these would look like, think of racetracks for high-speed cars, where the track is tilted at a slight angle so that cars won’t fly off the track as the result of centripetal force. That’s how Hesselink’s runway would look as well. And it would be big: roughly 3.5 km in diameter, and 10 km in circumference.

Hesselink admits that existing airports are unlikely to implement his design, because even the very real benefits of a circular track wouldn’t justify the expense of ripping up perfectly good runways. But maybe future airports will incorporate his design. If so, those shaky landings that so many people dread might just be a thing of the past.

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