Stale dry air, narrow seats, jammed overhead compartments: today's air passenger has to be a real flying nut to think plane travel is any fun. But engineers at European manufacturer Airbus say they're working on ways to improve things. Implementing the changes will probably take up to four decades, but they assure us the result will be more than worth the wait.
Flying in 2050 is going to be a real pleasure, the manufacturer says, with a 360-degree panoramic view whenever the "intelligent cabin membrane" is set on transparent, and a virtual golf course on board. Realistic projects, or overactive imaginations? "Engineers dream too," says Charles Champion, Airbus head of development. The Frenchman also points out that some of those dreams are already being implemented and may be launched in as little as 10 years from now.
One of the new ideas engineers are currently playing with involves harvesting passenger body heat to meet some of the plane's energy needs. Another idea refers to seats being upholstered with self-cleaning fabrics that adapt to each individual body form.
The first, business and economy class system would be abandoned: "It's not what people want," Champion says. Instead, there would be individual seating arrangements.
Innovations would by no means stop there. In the "vitalizing zone," for example, the air would be vitamin-enriched, while in the "interaction zone," passengers could enjoy virtual games of golf high up over the clouds, or go shopping and try on the latest fashions in virtual changing cabins. Through the cabin's transparent membrane, passengers would be able to gaze at the mountain peaks below them, and would be given information about the name of each summit and its exact height. State of the art communication with the ground would mean that business people could take part in video conferences at 33,000 feet, and that Mom or Dad could read bed time stories to their kids back home.
This cabin of the future - whose shape was modeled after birds - is part of Airbus's total concept for 2050. CEO Thomas Enders says the company expects the demand for aircraft to go up worldwide despite on-going problems faced by many airlines, particularly in Europe.
"Air travel continues to hold more long-term growth potential than virtually any other sector," Enders told the German newspaper "Welt am Sonntag." According to Airbus figures, air travel currently makes up 8%, or 580 billion dollars worth of the European gross domestic product. The sector employs 33 million people worldwide.
Airbus engineer Champion says that the three biggest current challenges are "that people want flying to be cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly." The sector has to find satisfactory answers to those demands, which is why flying will probably look completely different a few decades down the road. "By 2050, the sector will be hauling 9 billion passengers around the world," Champion says.
All that additional traffic will be possible thanks to new safety technologies that will enable companies to increase the number of flights fivefold. And instead of flying solo, planes could fly in formation and dock during flights to save on fuel. Airbus developers are even toying with the idea of huge airborne aircraft carriers that passenger planes could land on and be transported by.
Airbus' visions for airports of the future no longer include gates. Instead, planes would roll right up - subway style - to a station, with passengers boarding quickly through several doors with touch screens for the check in. Luggage would be put on a conveyor and stored in the cabin.
If Champion sees a sticking point, it concerns the airports themselves: "We can come up with all kinds of great stuff, but when a plane has to circle for 40 minutes over Heathrow before landing, a lot of it gets lost."