How These Futuristic Planes Are Set To Change Air Travel
Why departures of the future will be real highflyers
Qantas now operates the world’s longest non-stop flight, between London and Perth. It takes 17 hours to cover 9,000 miles, with not one single opportunity to disembark and stretch your legs. Although the Australian airline is using a Boeing 787 Dreamliner on this route, which is one of the most advanced commercial aircraft in our skies, the interiors are not wildly different from anything you will have experienced before. Sure, there is coloured mood lighting and larger windows with dimmable electrochroamatic glass instead of blinds, but for a journey like that, wouldn’t it be so much more civilised if you could have, say, a spa treatment or sit round a table and socialise? Alas, no such concessions are made to the weary travellers on this flight.
But things will change. And actually, the future of aircraft design won’t just be shaped by the demands of ultra-long-haul services and the desire to make passages comfortable. There are many other factors operating here. As always, there will be financial constraints. Airlines need to fill seats to make transporting travellers economically viable (a new Airbus A350-900 with 325 seats has a fuel capacity of 138,000 litres, which means it costs about £42,000 just to fill it up – which may mean even more passengers and less space). But another school of thought sees aircraft becoming more like cruise ships, with anything from gyms to casinos on board, and extra revenue made by virtual retail stores, restaurant-style dining and boardrooms for meetings.
Consider the forthcoming Airlander airship, which can stay airborne for up to five days at a time and float down vertically in near silence. Although enormous (92m long), it will accommodate just 48 passengers who can enjoy luxurious surroundings on pleasure flights over the North Pole or the Namib Desert. “Not only is it the largest flying aircraft in the world, but it demands interiors that truly break new ground,” says Mr Howard Guy, CEO and joint founder of Design Q, Airlander’s appointed design agency. “This will be something that passengers will treasure all their lives.” Details are scant at this stage, but there is scope for floor-to-ceiling windows and fresh air flowing in. Tickets will not come cheap.
Looking further ahead, innovative materials and technology will open up new possibilities. Manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus have grand visions for the future of flight, from pilotless planes to hybrid-electric propulsion. But it’s what’s inside that counts. “The journey can be as much a voyage of discovery as the destination,” says Mr Charles Champion, Airbus executive vice-president of engineering. “The passenger will step out feeling revitalised and enriched.” With that in mind, MR PORTER has consulted the experts to find the top five innovations hurtling our way.
At the no-frills end of the spectrum, Airbus has a patent for a hellish flip-down saddle seat that looks more like something you’d see at a bus stop than on a plane, while Boeing has proposed a cruel upright sleeping system with a head cushion with a hole in it to support the face. This means you’d be expected to snooze sitting up. In an attempt to ease the pain, Airbus has patented seats with built-in VR helmets to take you to another dimension, which might be helpful on a 17-hour flight. More appealing are Factorydesign’s purple bunk bed-style Air Lair pods and Airbus’s idea of morphing seats that adjust to your body shape and harvest your body heat to help power the plane.
For wealthier flyers, business class will become personalised. In the short term, the new Waterfront “seat”, a collaboration between Panasonic, B/E Aerospace, Teague and Formation Design Group, is coming next year. The hyper high-tech suite will have wireless charging pads, “infinitely adjustable” head, leg and back-rest settings, and 4K ultra-HD screens that connect with your smartphone, which you then use to control the system and input your preferences in terms of meals, drinks, playlists, climate control and ambient coloured lighting. The idea is that next time you fly, it will remember you like a G&T after take-off, a pink aura for working and a cool breeze when sleeping and set it up for you in advance.
At the moment, we might be satisfied with a view of the clouds and a good Marvel movie, but the aircraft of tomorrow will immerse us in augmented reality. Airbus unveiled an ambitious Concept Cabin for 2050, which proposed an interactive zone that could be used for holographic golf and a transparent roof held together by a bionic membrane that will allow panoramic views of the sky. Seeing 3D visuals overlaid on the glass, which show landmarks below, and the ability to turn your pod into a zen garden or beach house with holographic virtual decor will be the norm for flyers in the upper classes. In-air Wi-Fi may seem cool now, but in the future we will have “li-fi”, data transmitted through onboard lighting, which will be 100 times faster than high-speed Wi-Fi. Passengers will be able to stream any movie ever made instantly, while businesspeople will be able to conduct video conferences seamlessly across time zones.
Work and play zones
Like cruise ships, large planes such as the A380 superjumbo can be fitted out with luxurious zones for working and relaxing. Soon, there may be onboard gyms, spa zones, casinos, screening rooms and meeting spaces. After concerns that not enough airlines were buying these expensive double-deckers, Emirates ordered 36 of them in January in a deal worth $16bn and, although it hasn’t yet shared a vision for their interior design, it is already leading the way with onboard showers in first class, private suites and a lounge where up to 26 people can relax with a glass of champagne. “In our latest revamp, we have taken inspiration from private yacht cabins,” says Mr Tim Clark, president of Emirates. Features include a bar, subwoofers for music, a 55in TV screen and sound-proof curtains.
On planes configured with densely packed upright seating, the attraction will be the ability to get up and explore once at cruising altitude. For example, you might be able to try on holiday outfits in VR shopping booths. Just look in the mirror and swipe the different looks, accept the facial recognition payment option and then find them hanging in your hotel room wardrobe upon landing.
Flexibility will be another defining trend. Airbus was recently granted a patent for its Transpose modular cabin concept, which would allow ready-built and furnished sections to be slid into the body of the plane before departure. In this way, the aircraft can be entirely customised for the routes it is flying and the number of passengers on board. A flight to Las Vegas might have two bars on board, a gaming floor with blackjack and roulette and a rejuvenation booth complete with vitamin drips. The following week, the same plane might be off to another destination and could be configured for sleep zones and micro offices.
Return of supersonic
The demise of Concorde was a loss to aviation, but work is under way to bring back supersonic flight, meaning we will once again be able to travel between London and New York in less than three-and-a-half hours. In the 1970s, the interiors of these super-fast jets were conservative in a bid to reassure passengers that the cutting-edge machines were safe. There wasn’t a great deal of legroom and seats were upholstered in uninspiring brown or burgundy fabric. The new supersonic aircraft will still be small, but the cabins will resemble the most stylish of today’s private jets, with polished wood tables, chrome trim and sports-car seating in pale hand-stitched leather.
Backed by Sir Richard Branson, American startup Boom Technology is working on the launch of a sleek 55-passenger plane capable of speeds up to Mach 2.2 by 2023. Japan Airlines has invested $10m in the venture and placed orders for 20 aircraft, joining the Virgin Group as a future Boom operator. Flying much higher than regular jets, at 60,000ft, passengers will be able to see the curvature of the Earth out of circular portholes. Other contenders racing to bring back supersonic jets are Spike Aerospace, Aerion Supersonic and Nasa, which recently announced a deal with Lockheed Martin to develop an ultra-fast plane without the deafening sonic boom.