Some of the most important adaptations in the history of manned flight occurred in the back of an Ohio bicycle shop in 1896. While R&D has become somewhat more complex since the Wright Brothers’ time, the underlying principle remains the same: innovation is the beating heart of the aerospace industry.
With many customers now willing to look beyond the price of a ticket, particularly on long-haul flights, airlines are investing heavily in efficiency, sustainability and cutting edge technologies to set themselves apart. Here, The New Economy considers five of the most important changes that could shape commercial aviation in the not-so-distant future.
In a world where air travel makes up between four and nine percent of all man-made greenhouse gases, it is more important than ever to find sustainable ways to propel people through the air. One of the most exciting solutions is electric-powered flight, which sees loud, gas-guzzling jet engines replaced with clean, quiet motors.
Photon-powered planes, such as the Solar Impulse craft that flew around the world last year, have been promising, yet are still too rudimentary to be viable in the short term. For now, battery-powered aircraft offer more realistic remedies. In April, a company called Zanum Aero unveiled plans for a battery-powered commercial jet that is backed by both Boeing and JetBlue Ventures, and should yield a working hybrid prototype by 2020.
Meanwhile, an even more conservative solution to the industry’s carbon conundrum is biofuel, which is not limited by battery storage concerns. In 2012, Dutch airline KLM successfully sent a bio-powered plane on a 6,000-mile journey between Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro. Although biofuel has not been applied to commercial air travel yet, it certainly could be, with only a few adjustments to existing engine designs.
Even though new types of aeroplane are rapidly emerging, there is nothing to stop innovation within classic models as well. One of the most exciting trends in the aviation sector is the move towards smart materials, which have the potential to cut fuel consumption, boost aerodynamics and make planes faster by giving them stronger, lighter bodywork.
In the long term, graphene is the most exciting of such prospects. At just one atom thick, this modern super metal was discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004 when two scientists isolated it by peeling away layers of graphite. Their Nobel Prize-winning creation has applications everywhere, including in planes, where it can be used to line wings and prevent them taking on water: a job heavier carbon fibre and fibre resins are currently tasked with.
Since 2013, there have been efforts by US regulators to end the prohibition on mobile phone use on planes
Still, graphene remains a long way off, meaning more conventional solutions may be better in the short term. One of the best examples is Boeing’s Microlattice, which is a light, flexible yet extremely strong material that can be used in non-structural parts of the plane such as seats and interior environments. Rather than being a solid metal, it is made of many strands of hollow tubes and is, Boeing says, 99 percent air. As such, the Microlattice is capable of both protecting an egg from a 25-storey drop and sitting on top of a dandelion without breaking the seeds.
Very high flying
In 2004, Richard Branson inaugurated the Virgin Galactic project, with the goal of offering commercial spaceflight to wealthy customers. For the past five years, there have been promises that ‘maybe this year’ things will finally take off. Still, numerous setbacks, including the death of a test pilot in 2015, have given rise to an unwritten rule that its engineers and PR staff should avoid talking about timetabling.
Obstacles aside, the concept behind Virgin Galactic could have huge implications for commercial air travel. Aeroplanes that fly at the very top of the ozone layer can take advantage both of unique gravitational forces and the extremely low drag afforded by the lack of atmosphere to travel very quickly and with relatively little fuel consumption. The result, Branson reckons, is the potential to hop from London to Sydney in two hours flat.
While he also plans for space hotels and cruises to the moon, a more conventional mode of ultra-high commercial flight between destinations on Earth will probably come to fruition first.
As smartphones have become more commonplace, so too have their many applications. Today, even airlines and aeroplane manufacturers are adapting to accommodate their use in-flight; something that was once completely off-limits.
Last year, Boeing launched trials for an app called vCabin that allows passengers to adjust lighting levels in their immediate vicinity, as well as to call flight attendants, order food and even check if the toilet is free. Meanwhile, phones have also been adapted to interior components such as the Recaro CL6710 business-class seat, which is designed to allow mobile apps to recline the chair back and forth.
Since 2013, there have been efforts by US regulators to end the prohibition on mobile phone use on planes, indicating that there are fewer fears of phantom signals buzzing around and knocking out the aeroplane’s communications system. That said, earlier this year, the FCC’s new Chairman, Ajit Pai, launched a new campaign to cull these efforts and safeguard the existing ban. As such, in-flight apps may not be rolled out for few years. Whether R&D in this area will stop, though, is a different matter, as airlines may still feel incentivised to develop services in anticipation of the prohibition eventually being lifted.
Since about 2012, various app-based start-ups have emerged with a simple business model aimed squarely at the top end of the market: Uber for private jets. Companies such as Airpooler, Freshjets and Ubair have all promised to ‘democratise’ a $40bn industry that, until they came along, was propped up by just 150,000 customers worldwide.
Some have failed, yet others have been wildly successful, opening the industry to CEOs, businesspeople and others who may have been torn between first class and fully private travel. JetSmarter’s app, which is one of the most popular in the industry, enables users to book a journey on a private jet just one day in advance – quickly, smoothly, and with striking resemblance to ride-hailing services.
With JetSmarter’s basic service, $5,000 a year will buy seats on scheduled journeys between certain European cities. Meanwhile, Stratajet, a similar company, has reported 32 percent of its customers are first-time jet fliers; the average was just one percent annually before it emerged. As flights get cheaper and Uber-for-jets companies continue to surface, this luxurious mode of travel could become just a little less exclusive over the next few years.