Flying into the Future

These are exciting times in the aviation industry. From larger capacity airliners to increasingly sophisticated interior fixtures and fittings and bespoke flights, aviation is finally growing into its potential, the potential that has been there since the Wright brothers first took to the skies in what amounted to an airborne sailing craft concocted from wooden struts and sail cloth. The standard carriers of the mid 20th century, which were basically sardine cans crammed full of seats and little else hold as much similarity to the Wright brothers’ plane as they do to the planes coming into service at the beginning of the 21st century.

Already a lot of airlines offer an experience that is as luxurious as many hotels, with flat beds in their own space, a bar where you can sit and enjoy a drink, on-flight chefs who will prepare food as and when you require it, and in-seat in-flight entertainment, whether that’s a socket for your i-pod or a personal television screen on which to watch the movie of your choice. Admittedly many of these are still only available to first class passengers, but it can only be a matter of time before tailored facilities become available on board for all passengers, whether they chose to work, sleep or play, and interestingly, that future came a step closer this month with the first Airbus A380 delivery from EADS to Singapore Airlines. This is where the goals and dreams of decades come together because the Airbus has, quite simply, been years in the planning and its spec reads like something out of a futuristic sci fi movie.

So what’s so new about it? It’s just a plane, isn’t it? Well, yes, but WHAT a plane. The most obvious fact about the Airbus A380 is that it truly is the mammoth of the skies. Its spacious cabin offers room for not just the 600-800 passengers, but also such installations as relaxation areas, duty-free shopping, and beauty salons, not to mention the recent ideas mooted by Virgin Atlantic for its A380, due for delivery next year, which included casinos, double beds, a gymnasium, and showers. However, the really special stuff is the behind the scenes advances and improvements that make the new generation aircrafts, such as the Airbus A380, technological dreams because the kind of space we are talking about is by no means accidental.

The fact that, for example, composite materials make up 25% of the A380’s airframe structure (50% in the smaller Boeing Dreamliner), with plastic that’s been reinforced with glass-fibre, carbon-fibre or quartz-fibre used throughout for wings, fuselage, tail and doors. Using such plastics not only reduces the weight, but also enables the A380 to be the first aircraft to have smoothly contoured wing cross sections (as opposed to portioned wind sections) for maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

And there’s the new materials used throughout, such as GLARE (GLAss-Reinforced fibre metal laminate), which is not only lighter in and of itself than the more traditional aluminium, but it can also be laser welded, thus reducing the weight load even further. And how about the introduction of advanced systems capabilities taken straight from the advanced military aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Noise reduction has also been a priority, especially to comply with Heathrow’s stringent noise regulations where it is assumed the A380 will a frequent visitor. The combination of new-generation engines, such as the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or Engine Alliance GP7000 with its improved aerodynamic performance mean that the A380 is significantly quieter than today’s largest aircraft, producing only half as much noise on take-off and landing.

Smarter, bigger, cleaner, and quieter… and also greener it seems, (although Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is giving it a run for its money on that front – see below) with fuel efficiency of less than three litres per passenger per 100 kilometres. Put it all together (the advanced materials and systems, state-of-the-art aerodynamics, all-new engines) and you get a result, and one that has ‘more economical’ written all over it, with seat-mile costs 20% lower and a range over 1,000 nautical miles longer than the largest aircraft flying today. And how about a dose of global harmony thrown in for good measure? As the largest civil wide-body aircraft ever, the Airbus A380 has been designed in close collaboration with major airlines, airports, and airworthiness authorities. It’s like something out of a comic book hero strip dating from the 1950s; the difference being, of course, that this has already happened rather than being some far fetched idea of what the future might hold.

Tailored service
Another futuristic aviation idea used in comic strips and sci fi movies was of having your own personal flying machine that could be hailed as and when needed, much like a taxi. And that’s starting to become a reality too, with the impressive service now offered by America DayJet, the worlds’s first ‘per-seat, on-demand’ plane service. Connecting a raft of smaller cities in Southeastern America, DayJet has spent five years perfecting its complex software to fully automate its fleet operations system. When a customer punches in a route and preferred times online, DayJet can immediately calculate the best possible schedule and price with the most efficient use of crews and machines and enabling the airline to offer on-demand flights at a modest premium.

© Claire Burdett.

First published in ‘What’s The Future?’ (WTF) Magazine 2009

June 2011
Airbus continue to push the boundaries with design, their transparent vision of the future, unveiled in Paris this month. http://edition.cnn.com/2011/TRAVEL/06/14/airbus.future.cabin/index.html?eref=edition_travel&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+rss%2Fedition_travel+%28RSS%3A+Travel%29

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  1. Alastair Goodrum says:

    Enjoyed reading your article. Noted in first para the reference to the Wright Brothers and the frailty of early flights. As a published writer on aviation history can I draw your attention to the PRE-Wright era of flying, please? I refer of course to hte intrepid aeronauts of the lighter-than-air era – which began way back in 1783. For entertaining stories of these first travellers through the air and the ‘air shows’ they gave all over the country and the ‘powered’ flyers that followed them, please read my book ‘Balloons, Bleriots & Barnstormers – Two hundred years of flying for fun.’ I guarantee you’ll be fascinated by it. Published by The History Press in 2009, it’s the third of my four books. No.4 is just out ‘Dying To Fly’ – The human cost of Military flying – East Midlands.

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