Personally, I’m hard-pressed to think of even a single way in which the experience of air travel might be improved. If I was the National Plane Commissioner, my official policy would be, don’t change a thing. I am positive that everyone shares this view. Nonetheless, inevitably, things change. Air travel in 20 years may bear little resemblance to air travel today. Or maybe not—maybe air travel won’t change at all. One can dream. But one cannot know, for sure, without consulting the relevant experts. Which is why, for this week’s Giz Asks, we’ve reached out to four of them, for some insight into the future of air travel.
Professor, Aerospace Engineering, University of Michigan
The tin cans with wings that we fly in—there’s a well-entrenched procedure there. We have a ton of airport infrastructure—all those jetways, gadgets, etc. So in twenty years, say, I think things are going to look pretty similar. For the average flyer who just wants to get somewhere for a decent price, the experience is unlikely to change much. Generally, what we’ve seen in the last twenty to thirty years are hidden improvements: somewhat more efficient engines and aerodynamics, somewhat better controls.
That said, there have been some larger-scale changes. Right now we’re approaching single-pilot operations—it’s entirely possible that commercial flights will only have one pilot in twenty years, which will save airlines some money, and maybe some of that will be passed along to the consumer. Full automation, though, is unlikely—both because we’re not ready to abandon human pilots as yet, and because passengers feel more comfortable when there’s a well-trained human pilot upfront.
Looking ahead, I think we’ll see improved in-flight bandwidth—it’ll probably be as good as it is in our homes, which will allow for things that aren’t permitted now, like video chats.
Then there’s all the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) stuff that’s coming out—air taxis. A ton of new companies are going after that market, and I think the industry has hit a sweet spot with respect to electric motor reliability. So I think the next really cool, different-looking airplane is going to be something that has electric propulsion, likely several motors (not just two) and a shape that still provides a good aerodynamic lift.
Of course, only the wealthy will be able to afford these at first—Uber has said there will be air taxis for everybody in the near future, but I don’t see that being feasible for a long time, because driving is still so cheap. Not to mention the fact that these eVTOL aircraft are extremely expensive to create—between R&D, testing, certification, etc. If you live in a place like Manhattan, you might see helicopters fly over the river every so often, carrying wealthy executives and others who can afford to fly from nice homes outside the city, but it will be some time before the average consumer can afford them.
Associate Professor, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who is also a pilot
Right now, the most exciting developments in commercial air travel are happening in the realm of urban air mobility. Volocopter and EHang are two of a myriad companies that are building small aircraft to fly off the top of high-rises (aka vertiports). These aircraft rise vertically, like helicopters, but then switch to horizontal flight.
This process started with NASA in 2015. They’re in charge of some of the project, primarily working out airspace issues—sorting out how these aircraft will share space with drones and helicopters and airplanes. They’re designing a “traffic management” ecosystem called Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management to integrate all these components and make sure airspace is being used efficiently and safely.
Europe already has some regulations on the books for aircrafts like these, though as yet the US does not. The US companies who are testing these possibilities are doing so on experimental aircrafts, because we don’t yet have a suitable regulatory category. Right now, the FAA only has regulations for cargo carrying, and for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. Anything bigger than that needs case-by-case approval from the FAA.
The idea here is that these aircraft will help to avoid the congestion of driving two or three hours to the airport on the freeway—instead, it would be a short hop from vertiport to airport.
Initially, as with everything else, prices are going to start high, but over time, as the technology becomes more mainstream, it’s going to become more affordable, and will hopefully reduce commuting time. There are also medical applications—people in need of urgent care could be evacuated in one of these crafts instead of a helicopter. The key here is vertical takeoff—since you don’t need a runway, you can take off anywhere, including from the middle of the street. This makes things much more agile.
Associate Professor in the Practice of Architectural Technology at Harvard University and Principal of INVIVIA
The pessimistic part of me would say that nothing much is going to change in 20 years—the systems underpinning air travel are so complex that change is inevitably incremental.
At the same time, I think certain emergent technologies like augmented and virtual reality present good opportunities to transform the experience of air travel. There’s a chance, here, to complement the discomfort of air travel, instead of fighting it.
The way air travel currently works, there’s always a tension between the passenger’s need for comfort and what the airlines regulations allow for. If you’ve never flown before, flying’s the most fun thing imaginable; but inevitably, as we fly more, we take the experience for granted and focus on the little annoyances. The idea here would be to reframe negative experiences (say, a mid-flight bump) into positive ones. So much of air travel is geared towards making you forget that you’re flying—think in-flight movies. It’s always about forgetting yourself and trying to put your mind on other things. You forget the fact that you’re flying. There’s an opportunity here to inject some awe back into the experience.
VR or AR could reframe the plane’s movements or sounds in compelling or instructional ways and turn the actual experience of flight into something pleasurable.
As for what air travel might look like 100 years from now—maybe these visceral experiences will be indistinguishable from a bird flying on at its best day and if that’s not your cup of tea the best way to fly across the world might be to fall asleep and wake up there. So maybe, ideally, we’d have a service that knocks you out in your living room and wakes you up in a hotel room in Tokyo.
Professor, Computer Information Sciences, SUNY Fredonia, who studies network applications in aviation, among other things
As a frequent traveler, you already know that you have to check in and get an electronic boarding pass each time you take a flight. When you arrive at the airport, you check in your luggage to receive a tag and then pass through security. Security checkpoint protocol includes removing your shoes, opening and placing your bigger mobile devices on the belt and taking off your jacket. Later, you look at the directions to figure out your gate. You present your boarding pass at the gate for boarding. Once inside the plane, you will have selective Internet access and no cellular service. When you reach your destination, you stand by the conveyer belt and occasionally flip the bags looking for your checked bag.
20 years from now, commercial air travel is projected to be quite different from today’s air travel experience. You will not have to check in for each flight you take. There will be a universal boarding pass saved in your mobile device that you will present at the gate. When you check in your bags, they will carry a BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) tag. Security checkpoint will be a breeze with a quick scan of your body and belongings as you walk through the gate. When you walk inside the terminal building, your phone will direct you to the gate of your flight. Once inside the plane, you can determine the exact location of your bag by using its app on the mobile phone. You will have ubiquitous connectivity through the 6G network. You will be able to make and receive phone calls normally as well as work normally using the Internet connectivity on your laptop, tablet or phone. Once you reach the destination airport, you will not rush to the conveyor belt for taking your bags. Instead, you will take a seat nearby. When your bag arrives, your phone will beep and alert you to the exact location of the bag.
The biggest changes would be in the duration of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific flights. Technologies will be developed to reduce the duration of commercial trans-Atlantic flights to just a couple of hours.
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