It was 110 years ago that the famous Wright brothers — Orville and Wilbur — began work developing their iconic flying machine into the first practical fixed-wing aircraft. Just months before, the pioneers literally flew their way into the history books when they invented and built the world’s first successful airplane and made the first controlled, powered and sustained human flight, on 17 December 1903.
This year is indeed one for anniversaries as US planemaker Boeing celebrates 100 years as a commercial company and Lufthansa, Europe’s biggest airline, in April celebrates 60 years in operation.
While the Wright brothers got the ball rolling, innovation in aviation has continued at miraculous pace and earlier this month a new pioneering system was unveiled. Two pilots attempting the first flight around the world in a solar-powered plane began the maiden leg of their voyage from Abu Dhabi.
Solar Impulse 2 took off from the UAE capital on March 9, the start of a five-month journey of 35,000km organised to focus the world’s attention on sustainable energy.
“Solar Impulse wants to mobilise public enthusiasm in favour of technologies that will allow decreased dependence on fossil fuels, and induce positive emotions about renewable energies,” the organisers claim.
At 2,300kg, the plane is only as heavy as a family car, but has a wingspan as wide as the largest passenger airliner. Its journey will span approximately 25 flight days broken up into 12 legs at speeds between 50 and 100km (30 to 60 miles) per hour. Looking to the future, innovation within the aviation sector continues and how we fly, where we fly and the experience on board an aircraft is set to rapidly change in the coming decades.
“It is becoming a more competitive marketplace as new competitors enter. We are focused on maintaining our technology lead in the development of new commercial airplanes so we can lead and be successful,” Marty Bentrott (pictured below), vice president of sales for the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, says confidently as we meet in Dubai to peer into a crystal ball at some of the upcoming innovation likely in the industry.
“Boeing is 100 years old as of the middle of this year as an enterprise and we want to make it another 100.”
Already, airlines around the world are eager for bigger, smarter planes that can fly faster, smoother and more efficiently. Emirates Airline, which is the biggest customer for the superjumbo A380 — with 140 of the aircraft on order from Airbus — is keen to push the European planemaker to make even bigger planes.
“I think there is no doubt about it, there will be more demand for higher-capacity aircraft, purely driven by the capacity and congestion you have at airports and airspace,” says Adel Al Redha, executive vice president of engineering and operations at Emirates. “It is always difficult to get slots in any international airport today… The only way to fill your need is to operate that kind of aircraft.
“I think the size we would look at is the treble aircraft configuration that goes from 500 to 800 passengers,” he adds, but concedes that it is unlikely that a triple-decker style aircraft would be developed and brought to market within the next decade.
The Gulf carriers are certainly pushing the envelope for bigger aircraft, and Boeing is answering. In 2011 it announced plans to develop third-generation versions of its popular 777 model, with the 777X version expected to be wider and able to carry up to 407 passengers.
The gamble certainly paid off when the American planemaker officially launched the 777X at the Dubai Airshow in November 2013, as it announced orders and commitments worth more than $95bn. With Emirates ordering 150, Etihad Airways taking 25 and Qatar Airways signing up for 50, it was the largest product launch by dollar value in the history of commercial aviation.
Bentrott predicts that this trend is set to continue: “We were very successful last year with Emirates and Qatar for that product. We believe there are airlines remaining in this part of this world who have a requirement for it. You may see some of that take place this year, or maybe the following year. On a global basis we are in talks with a number of key airline customers who we believe will order the 777X this year.”
In addition to larger jets, Emirates president Sir Tim Clark is also demanding aircraft that will allow it to fly ultra long-haul flights of up to 20 hours and the Dubai carrier is reportedly in talks with Boeing to make this a reality. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got sufficient bits and pieces in there to deal with it,” Clark told The New Zealand Herald newspaper. He suggested light colour palettes and the use of mood lighting to try and “alleviate the stress and boredom” could be included.
This is something that has been addressed directly by Boeing’s rival Airbus in its series on the future of flying and its development of the concept cabin. After several brainstorming sessions, executives at the European manufacturer have envisioned planes of the future that will have special zones dedicated to relaxing and playing games, open panoramic windows and even seats that can use passengers’ body heat to power the plane.
The cabin of 2050, says Airbus, will see the roof become translucent at the flick of a switch and passengers will be able to view the sunset or the cloud cover over mountain tops. This may seem far-fetched but such technology is already built into the windows in Boeing’s Dreamliner, so why not expand this across the entire roof of the aircraft?
British firm the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is already looking at the possibility of windowless aircraft, which will be able to offer a crystal clear panoramic view of the world below. Scientists and engineers at CPI are developing ultra-flexible, high-definition display technologies that could line the interior walls of cabins and display live footage from external cameras. As well as offering views of the surroundings above and below, the display could have an interactive ‘digital wallpaper’ that could allow travellers to personalise their environment, providing options to adjust lighting or as a multimedia device to screen in-flight entertainment.
Echoing Clark’s request, an Airbus survey of 10,000 passengers found that when people fly they want it to feel more like a holiday experience, similar to boarding a cruise liner. In the same way that A380s have lounge areas and shower facilities, future planes could have virtual shopping areas where passengers can project clothing options onto their body or a virtual gaming wall, similar to the Wii video game console, where passengers can play golf or tennis.
Etihad this year introduced ‘The Residence by Etihad’ on its A380s (pictured below). Located on the upper deck of the Airbus superjumbo, The Residence accommodates up to two people and includes a living room, separate double bedroom and ensuite shower room, use of a personal butler trained by the Savoy Butler Academy in London and is described as “the world’s most luxurious living space in the air”.
While not everyone can afford The Residence, London-based aviation design firm Factorydesign, which has in the past worked with the Abu Dhabi carrier on its interiors, has come up with a funky alternative: the AirLair (below). The concept is a personalised cocoon, with a double-decker configuration allowing for 30 percent more passengers within the same space.
“Within this enclosed environment the passenger is able to control their own personal space without disturbing other passengers or, for that matter, being disturbed by other passengers. Strategically placed lighting is used to set the mood, while an over-head projector provides the entertainment, and ergonomically designed lay-flat seat provides the comfort,” the company says in its pitch.
While energy costs may be falling as a result of the drop in the oil price, Airbus has also come up with a way to use the seating to help power the plane. By 2050, it envisages the introduction of morphing seats which can harvest passenger’s body heat to power aircraft systems.
Even with all the great interiors in the world, safety is the priority when it comes to flying. However, it’s unlikely that passengers will be handed their own parachutes any time soon.
“You need to be trained to use a parachute,” Willie Walsh, a former pilot and CEO of IAG, British Airways’ parent company and the third largest airline group in Europe, tells Arabian Business as we debate the concept in his office in London. “Trying to jump out of an aircraft isn’t easy, [especially] if you analyse where a parachute would have been of use… Also, if you jump out the chances are you are probably going to hit the airplane. I am sticking with the airplane,” he smiles.
“If a plane is in that awkward a situation the ability to parachute out is not possible,” says Bentrott.
“Do you have additional protections that come into play within your environment? I think the only real practical application there would be some sort of escape pod.”
Imagine a panic pod made of the same material as the black box which can sustain any fire damage or the impact of the plane on sea or the ground? It may sound like a sci-fi movie but the engineers who worked on the Burj Khalifa report that the world’s tallest tower allegedly has fire pods built at some of the highest floors so in the event of fire residents can take refuge in there and stay safe, even if the tower goes up in flames.
A recent report by Boeing found that the Middle East will need to recruit 55,000 new pilots over the next 20 years in order to keep up with the supply of aircraft. The company’s 2014 Pilot and Technician Outlook also forecast that a further 62,000 technicians will be needed in the region as airline fleets continue to grow.
“The challenge of meeting the global demand for airline professionals cannot be solved by one company or in one region of the world,” says Sherry Carbary, vice president, Boeing Flight Services.
“This is a global issue that can only be solved by all of the parties involved — airlines, aircraft and training equipment manufacturers, training delivery organisations, regulatory agencies and educational institutions around the world.”
In a city of driverless metros and plans by the Dubai government to introduce driverless cars, could pilotless planes be part of the conversation for airlines and a possible answer to the pilot shortage issue?
“It is not pie-in-the-sky from a technological standpoint,” says Bentrott. “I think you have to get to the social part of it. As consumers, are we ready to let the car drive ourselves and are we more comfortable. You will have to see it in the consumer market first before you ever see it in aviation.”
One issue that is likely to put passengers off pilotless planes is the recent loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 which went missing on 8 March 2014. However, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr says the technology is already being advanced to make sure this never happens again.
“The technology is there nowadays to have the airplane trackable at all times. Lufthansa has much higher frequency of reporting positions and aircraft status than many other airlines and we are proud of that. For the industry we need to come to a point where we don’t depend on the black boxes to be physically found any more but rather have data transmitted at certain frequency or at a certain incident.
“If problems arise you could download data that very moment… That is another thing we are looking at. So basically you continuously submit data or — maybe a combination of both — and when something doesn’t look right that is when data is transmitted… And if something goes terribly wrong afterwards, you would have much more accurate data.”
Malaysia Airline’s other incident last year, the shooting down of flight MH17 over the Ukraine, has also generated debate as to whether some commercial airlines in the future should have defence systems such as anti-missile devices.
However, this was dismissed by Emirates’ Clark: “Some people say planes should be armed with counter devices. That will go absolutely nowhere. If we can’t operate aircraft in a free and unencumbered manner without the threat of being taken down, then we shouldn’t be operating at all.” This was echoed by Spohr who says “civil aircraft should never be so close to military action that they need to defend themselves. They shouldn’t be there.”
Airbus’ 2050 survey of passengers found 66 percent said they want quieter aircraft. Already, aircraft are 80 percent quieter than 60 years ago, but IAG’s Walsh says in the future passengers will get their wish as he is pushing to make planes even quieter.
“Particularly here at Heathrow noise is an issue. They are improving. The A380 are much quieter relative to the aircraft they are replacing. Going forward, the challenge is that in many cases there is a trade off in noise performance and fuel performance. We have to decide globally what is more important.
“The A380, this is an aircraft that has been made quieter but at the expense of the environment. It has to be both. Noise for us is a critical issue and it is one of the factors that is always on our agenda when we are considering what aircraft to buy. The good news is that all the ones being developed today are significantly quieter than the ones they are replacing,” he concedes.
While entertainment is moving forward with live TV and all the movies you can choose from, Virgin two years ago took the concept one stop forward and installed live acts on board. Stand-up comedians were put on flights going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013.
“In true Virgin Atlantic spirit we’re doing something a little different and providing our passengers with a line-up of gigs to ensure we offer a truly unforgettable flying experience on Little Red,” Virgin CEO Sir Richard Branson was quoted as saying. How long before you have cruise ship style inflight entertainment? As they say, the sky’s the limit, and with aviation that certainly seems to be the case.