- Zunum Aero
Air travel is in a period of great change. With the rapid pace of innovation, airlines and airplane makers are working hard to keep up.
For the most part, the airlines and the companies that make their planes are not all that well equipped to react quickly to change. A new plane takes more than a decade to put into service and its designed to keep flying for several subsequent decades.
Usually, a major industry-wide overhaul to passenger experience happens once every decade or two. We are currently in such a generational shift. Innovations such as new composite-bodied airliners liked the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, as well as technologies like satellite-based internet and geared turbofan engines, come to mind.
But that doesn’t mean the industry is fresh out of cool stuff. In fact, the pace of development and innovation is only quickening in its pace.
Like the automotive industry, airplane makers and the people who fly their planes understand the need to unpeg the development of aircraft hardware and software.
An industry once bound by the limits of flying metal is heading towards a future where software is growing in importance.
Currently, the industry is working on many potentially game-changing innovations that could find their way into common airline use over the next couple of decades.
- Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Over the past century, piston power has given way to turbine power. The next frontier is electric power. And the amazing part is that electric aircraft aren’t far away.
In 2014, Airbus debuted their all-electric E-Fan demonstrator aircraft. The two-seat test plane is powered by two electric motors each powering a variable geometry fan. Through the E-Fan, Airbus wants to show the public the viability of electric aviation. In 2015, the E-Fan became the first twin-engined electric plane to cross the English Channel.
Airbus isn’t alone. In April, Boeing and JetBlue both invested in electric aircraft startup Zunum. This week, the three-year-old company announced that it plans to introduce a 12-passenger hybrid-electric prop plane into service by 2022.
Electric planes might deliver quiet, eco-friendly air travel, hypersonic flights get you to your destination fast.
In 2003, we took step backward with the retirement of the Aerospatiale-BAC Concorde. For the first time in decades, mankind does not possess the capability to conduct supersonic passenger flights.
While affordable and fuel efficiency may be at the forefront of the industry, manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing still have an itch for high-speed flight.
In 2015, Airbus patented a hypersonic jet capable of reaching 4.5 times the speed of sound. The design patented by Airbus shows an aircraft powered by a combination of turbojet, ramjet, and rocket motor.
Earlier this year, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC that he expects hypersonic commercial flights to be a reality within the next decade or two. Even though passengers will probably have to pay a premium for the service, being able to fly from New York to Shanghai in less than two hours may be worth it.
Modern jet engines, for all of their refinement and efficiency, still run on kerosene. But one day, kerosene may be replaced by biofuels. While it isn’t as revolutionary as electric propulsion, biofuels represent a step in the right direction towards cutting down on greenhouse emissions.
Airlines just such as United, KLM, and Singapore have all operated commercial flights using biofuels.
Currently, there are a variety of biofuels based on everything from recycled vegetable oil to plant-based ethanol. Virgin Atlantic is even working with a Chinese firm to develop a biofuel using waste gases captured from steel mills.
However, low oil prices currently make biofuels uneconomical for commercial airlines.
- Sergio Perez/Reuters
From day one, pilots have been an integral part of the flying experience. However, as technology has progressed, systems once designed to assist pilots are beginning to verge towards replacing them.
For short distance flights, testing of pilotless flying taxis is currently underway in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Major aviation players seem to be working on this as well.
Boeing has just acquired Aurora Flight Sciences, an aviation research firm that specializes in the design unmanned aircraft.
For airlines, replacing pilots with technology could lead to major cost savings. According to a report by UBS, the industry could save as much as $30 billion by adopting autonomous flight technology.
It remains to be seen how quickly autonomous flying will take hold. Afterall, technology has a tendency to go wrong, which means we’ll probably need a pilot there to take over.
In the past decade, the check-in process has gone from paper printouts to app-based QR codes. But in the near future, all we’ll need is to simply show up. That’s because the next step in the evolution of the airport experience is biometrics.
JetBlue announced this year that it is working to perfect facial recognition technology to be used instead of paper or electronic boarding passes. All passengers will have to do is stand in front of a camera and take a picture. The photo will then be matched to the US Customs and Border Patrol database.
At the same time, Delta Air Lines is experimenting with facial recognition for its automated baggage system. On the other hand, Delta is working on fingerprint recognition for its automated check-in program.
Connectivity and entertainment
- JetBlue Airways
In-flight connectivity and entertainment have come a long way over the past few years. Not that long ago, in-flight entertainment consisted of a book or a movie shown on an overhead projector. And we aren’t that many years removed from in-flight pay phones.
Today, elaborate seatback entertainment systems are all the rage. However, even their days may be numbered.
The development of satellite-based internet connectivity means bulky in-plane systems are eventually going to be obsolete.
With the proliferation of smart devices, streaming entertainment looks to be the next hot thing.
Airlines such as American, Delta, Southwest, and United have gone to wireless streaming.
JetBlue offers its passengers free high-speed internet while Delta is also offering free in-flight texting on board its aircraft.