The future of air travel

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

In December 1903 the Wright brothers first flight was 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds. Today’s 747 and Airbus jetliners carry hundreds of people thousands of miles, non-stop. But the threat of hijacking and SARS has curtailed air-travel and the airlines are in trouble. What will happen in the future?

A version of this article was published by:
San Diego Mensan magazine, May 2003

In December 1903 the Wright brothers launched the very first human-carrying machine into the air on its own power. Their airplane was a biplane glider, powered by a 12 HP gasoline engine connected to a propeller. On the first day their longest flight was 852 feet and lasted 59 seconds.

That’s where it started. So, where have we come in 100 years? And, where are we going?

Within a decade after that first flight, aircraft had already flown across the English Channel. In less than two decades, regular "international" airline services had started, between London and Paris. By 1930 several airlines were flying across a wide network of air-routes, with regular services across the world.

Within a half-century, the development of jet aircraft brought vastly improved speed and luxury. The venerable Boeing 707, the most successful jetliner ever, made its maiden flight in 1957 and is still in use. Natural extensions in size and range led to today’s 747 and Airbus jetliners, carrying hundreds of people thousands of miles, non-stop. Inexpensive air travel allowed almost anyone to travel almost anywhere in the world within a day. The globe had become a village.

Up to the end of the past century, the number of airline passengers was forecasted to grow exponentially. Whether it was flying to a holiday in the sun, a trip to see relatives, or a business meeting on another continent, the desire to fly seemed insatiable. This was not matched by increases in aviation capacity, which meant increasing congestion and delays.

But then the growth suddenly stopped. In the first year of the new century, something happened to change the seemingly inexorable growth pattern.

Aircraft hijacking started being a problem decades ago, though it did not occur often enough to be taken seriously. Hijackers, usually armed with guns, typically diverted aircraft and held passengers as hostages, demanding something in exchange. To prevent this, passengers and baggage were searched routinely.

In the new century, 9/11 brought an ominous new twist of terrorism - suicidal hijackings. Using the infamous “box-cutters” that were not found through the normal x-ray search, jumbo-jets were commandeered and piloted as enormous guided bombs, with full fuel-tanks acting as explosives, intended to inflict maximum damage.

The only possible resolution of the hijacking problem is to identify terrorists before they board. But this is not easy to implement and has simply succeeded in causing long airport delays, often several hours, which makes many flights impractical. In the wake of the Iraqi war, suicidal terrorism is likely to increase, which heightens the problems of air travel.

The short-term impact of the 9/11 catastrophe has been disastrous, not only for the airlines but for the entire aviation and travel industry as well. Air travel in the US has declined by 10 to 20 percent, decimating the airline business and costing millions of jobs.

Another specter has arisen just recently to compound the problem. There was always a worry about sitting for hours in a closed tube with a hundreds of passengers, many of whom may have colds and flu. But, this was a “soft” problem and it didn’t stop too many people from flying. However, in the past few weeks SARS, the new highly communicable virus that originated in China, was transferred rapidly around the world by jet travel. Now people, already suffering from heightened terrorist jitters, have found another reason not to fly.

The airline travel crisis has indeed affected the two largest manufacturers of large commercial airliners, Boeing and Airbus. But both say they can ride out the storm and remain profitable. With no real alternatives on the horizon, especially for long-haul travel, both companies are spending billions of dollars on designing and building new planes for the 21st century. But there is a big difference in their strategies.

After their supersonic Anglo-French Concorde fizzled, the Airbus strategy is to provide space and economics with giant jumbo jets. Their new Airbus A380 is designed to carry at least 550 passengers and to give them a completely new experience. There is space everywhere in this new giant aircraft, with even a shop where economy class passengers can stand up, move around, and buy duty-free goods.

Boeing thinks that speed is what their customers want. Their Sonic Cruiser will travel faster than today's passenger jets, with a 15-20% reduction in flight time. Also, Boeing feels that people want to fly from smaller airports, direct to where they want to go, faster than they can do now.

Further in the future, the look of the contemporary airliner disappears. Gone is the traditional cylindrical fuselage, with wings and a tail. The body is simply a chunky flying wing - in aeronautical lingo, a blended wing body, or BWB. Partitions that run the length of the aircraft will create the appearance of normal cabins. The lack of windows for passengers seated away from the outside rows will be compensated by television projections, either on artificial windows or individual television monitors that would simulate a view of the outside to reduce the feeling of claustrophobia. Boeing feels that their BWB could be carrying commercial passengers within 10 or 15 years.

It will be 20 years before we know for sure whether Boeing (with smaller, faster planes) or Airbus (with their super-jumbo’s) picked the right strategy.

Meanwhile, futurists still think that the fantasy of a personal flying machine is moving towards reality. Several individuals and groups in the US are competing to produce a safe, dependable "aircar". Many experts suggest that personal aircars are not only feasible, but inevitable.

Accelerating computer technology advances are making practical and affordable aircars a possibility within a couple of decades. Thanks to GPS, advanced navigational technologies and aerial collision-avoidance systems, aircars will fly themselves. The "driver" will simply get in, speak the destination and let the aircar carry them up, up and away - a futuristic flying carpet,

A system that could serve as the starting point for controlling personal aircars is the Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS), a joint project between NASA and the FAA. SATS expects to outfit a nationwide system of more than 5,000 small airports connected by virtual "highways in the sky" for the use of a new generation of small, safe, easy-to-fly, and inexpensive airplanes. NASA and the FAA expect the system to be fully operational after about 2015.

Hey, but who knows - perhaps we'll be teleporting by then. Beam me up, Scotty!

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA