In the last century, commercial aviation has come a long way. On January 1st, 1914, the first scheduled flight with a paying passenger was scheduled, flying only one passenger from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa. Although this was monumental at the time, it wasn’t until 1965 that the first commercial jetliner took to the skies, marking an event that would forever change the history of aviation.
Today more then 75% of Americans have traveled on an airplane at one point in their life. These numbers continue to grow globally, with commercial airliners carrying around 3 billion passengers each year aboard 3 million different flights. As these numbers grow, air travel is quickly becoming one of the busiest modes of mass transit around the world.
So what does the future of aviation look like in another 10, 20 or even 30 years? Faster more fuel-efficient aircrafts, planes that run on solar power, bigger windows, fancier interiors…the possibilities are endless. As technology continues to improve, so will the advancements in aviation. But which of these ideas are reality and which are nothing more then a sci-fi fantasy?
#1 – The Windowless Fuselage
Imagine boarding a flight to discover that all the windows within the cabin have been removed, replaced only by projected digital images on the walls. Well according to the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), this will become a reality sooner then you think, calculating the first plane to take to the skies within the next ten years.
Although this may make many passengers a little leery, CPI claims that by introducing windowless planes, the flight industry will benefit drastically. Without the need for windows, interior walls would be thinner, more lightweight and stronger. It would cut down the cost of production as well as overall operational costs, in turn resulting in cheaper airfares for consumers.
Windowless cabins would allow passengers the ability to watch in-flight entertainment, change lighting to help better adjust to different time zones, or view different angles from outside the plane. Terrifying or not, the possibilities are intriguing. But the question remains, will passengers choose to fly on a windowless aircraft?
#2- Pilotless Planes
In the aftermath of Germanwings Flight 9525, the idea of removing pilots in order to improve airline safety is up for debate. Whether or not this is a rational solution, one must consider both sides of the debate.
On one side, autonomous modes of transportation have existed for years and we use them everyday without even blinking an eye. Step on an elevator, ride the airport tram or hop on certain subway systems and you will find yourself cruising along without an operator. Airlines would save millions of dollars in pilot travel expenses, and pilots could work more regular hours by operating flights from the ground. Other then takeoff and landing, the majority of aircrafts that operate today use automated systems anyway, making the idea not so far fetched. So if the Military can successfully fly pilotless drones from the opposite side of the globe, why can’t we imagine commercial airliners doing the same?
On the other side of the debate, perhaps pilotless planes pose a greater risk then reward. Can we compare flying a pilotless aircraft 30,000 feet above the ground to operating an autonomous train that travels along a designated track? Can we imagine boarding a plane without a pilot and putting our fate into the hands of someone on the ground? People want to know that there is someone in control up front, especially in moments of turbulence or rare situations when an aircraft experiences a system malfunction. Hearing a pilot’s voice come over the PA during an uncomfortable situation is comforting to passengers. Also, with news growing around airlines being at risk of computer hijackings, would passengers really be safe? You decide.
#3- In-flight Refueling
Imagine boarding a non-stop flight from New York City and flying direct to Sydney, Australia on a straight 20+ hour flight. With the longest current flight taking 18.5 hours operating from Singapore to New York, it doesn’t require a far stretch of the imagination to know it’s possible.
But is refueling mid-air really the solution to non-stop air travel? According to research funded by the European Union, researchers believe that this maneuver could be done safely with a “highly automated fuel control system”. Mid-air refueling would also allow commercial aircraft to take off with less fuel load, saving almost 23% in overall fuel consumption. Although Military history has proven that mid-air refueling poses some risk, there may be some benefits.
Fortunately though, research is already looking into other solutions for long haul improvements. Boeing has proposed changes to it’s 777, stating that the new 777-8LX should be in service within the next decade, while Airbus already has it’s sight set on an extended range A380. With better technology and more efficient fuels, perhaps the need for refueling mid-air will be a practice that remains within the military, and no longer a proposed solution to long-haul commercial flights.