Last week, the Huffington Post, The Daily Mail and some other sites posted stories that read something like this: "Here's what flying will look like in 2050." Most of the concepts shown are complete fantasy, just like the flying car concepts shared decades ago, and for similar reasons: Human beings are frail, greedy and make bad decisions. But there's still some hope.
First off, I need to point out that some of these illustrations have been around for three years now, so these aren't exactly news to anyone who follows aviation. The video below was posted by Airbus to YouTube on June 15th, 2011. The concepts, while very cool, show some things we're likely to never see in real life on a commercial airliner.
Let's walk through some of them to see what's fantasy and what's realistic.
Where it fails: The video shows us things like biometric check-in for flights as you board. While it could be a valuable measure of security, it could also be a time-consuming nightmare. A lot of us would probably balk at having our handprint or fingerprints taken and archived by an airline. Let's just be happy that most airlines finally have boarding passes that can be scanned from your smartphone.
Where we might see it: I could see biometric technology being more valuable on the flight deck, for verification that the people at the controls are the ones who are supposed to be there.
Image via Airbus
In-Plane Golf Simulator
Where it fails: A golf simulator? Yeah, right! Maybe if you're a Sheikh who's ordering a private Airbus A350. Again, it's a cool idea — but the cost of using that valuable floor space for games instead of revenue-generating seats would never be recuperated. Flying with less than the potential number of seats raises the operating cost for the airline.
Where we might see it: There are some opportunities on planes to use space for something other than putting in more seats, but the more realistic choice would be to have a walk-up bar that could potentially bring some revenue back to the airline.
Image via Airbus
Where it fails: As an aviation buff, this is the one I'd like to see most of all — a panoramic view of the sky during flight. But it will never happen. Why? Because there will always be that one person who is afraid of heights or gets motion sickness and will ruin the fun for everyone else. These aren't windows, mind you - but a real-time image of the sky displayed on every ceiling and edge surface. This brings me to question what they've done with the overhead bin storage.
Lufthansa Airbus A380 tail cam. Photo by Paul Thompson
Where it's realistic:So, what's a satisfactory alternative to bring that great view to passengers? Most of the really large planes have cameras on top of the tail, to give pilots better visibility during ground maneuvers. In 2011, I flew on a Lufthansa A380, spending the take-off and descent portions of the flight watching this view on my in-flight entertainment screen. I had an aisle seat in the center section, thus I couldn't see out the window. Allowing passengers access to this view is a cheaper alternative than installing some sort of LED screen all over the roof of cabin. The screens would be certain to generate a lot of heat and additional weight to the aircraft as well.
So, What Is There To Look Forward To?
What we need to see brought to commercial aviation is the energy efficiency attained by the Solar Impulse, which can fly completely free of traditional fuel. Fuel is always one of the top three expenditures for airlines, along with personnel and aircraft. Passengers want the utmost comfort and service. Airlines want the lowest operating costs. Everyone else just wants airliners to be as quiet and pollution-free as possible.
Planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350-XWB are helping bring those desires to fruition, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. Realistically, 10-20 years from now, we will not see much change in the industry as a whole. It takes about 10 years for a manufacturer like Airbus or Boeing to develop a "clean sheet" aircraft from concept to delivery. The latest completely new planes, the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787, were each delayed for years before finally entering service.
What changes do I expect to see in the near future? 3D printing will allow some parts to be manufactured cheaper, lighter and stronger. This will reduce the weight of the aircraft, which will result in better profit margins for airlines. 3D printing will also allow airlines to print some parts on an as-needed basis. If an aircraft goes out of service for a mechanical reason, a part could potentially be made right on site, versus waiting for one to be shipped from the other side of the world.
Ceramic fan blade coatings for engine fan blades will allow for smother airflow into engines, so they'll operate more efficiently at higher temperatures but also dissipate heat better. The coating also reduces wear to the fan blade, allowing for a potentially longer life cycle.
Biofuels will become the norm, or will at least be blended with traditional jet fuel consistently. Several airlines have already flown test flights using biofuels. When I was at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in May, scientists shared with us that biofuel by itself can be problematic, as it doesn't cause fuel system seals to expand by themselves, resulting in leakage. When biofuels have been blended with traditional "Jet A" fuel, the leak issue has been solved.
787-9 Dreamliner. Image via Boeing
Hybrid laminar flow technology will enter wide usage throughout the industry. Boeing's 787-9 (pictured above) will enter service later this year, using the breakthrough technology on both its vertical and horizontal stabilizers. Hybrid laminar flow reduces drag by using tiny holes to smoothing out airflow over the surface, sort of like dimples on a golf ball. I picture it being applied to the wings as well, perhaps as soon as Boeing's 777X. The reduction in drag will result in lower fuel burn, making the flight more economical to operate.
I hate to burst anyone's bubble, because it's fun to ponder the future. However, before we assume we'll all be flying along under a glass dome like George Jetson, consider the fact that our current generation of planes has us flying farther, more economically, and more comfortably than ever.
By comfort, I mean the way the 787 can simulate a lower altitude in the cabin, leaving you less jet-lagged. You can argue until you're red in the face, but now that airlines know that people will still fly in almost any tiny seat for a short period of time, for a cheap fare, that's not going away. But in terms of the aircraft themselves, there's no huge need for a drastic change and the industry will continue to support efficiency gains in any form.