Friday, February 25, 2011

What's Next For Commercial Aircraft?

Thanks to FlightBlogger's Movie Monday from February 14th I began thinking about the history of commercial airplanes.  I thought about all of the modernizations and advancements that have happened over the last several decades.  There have been many major milestones, like the comet, the 747, Concorde, the A380, and the 787.  But what's coming next?  With the quickly growing love of composite airframes, and the onset of GPS technology to create more direct routes, the airframes of yesterday are not capable of keeping up with what's to come.

© Boeing
I've mentioned before that the aviation industry is nothing like the automobile industry.  Every year car manufacturers are pumping out new models and producing thousands of the units.  Keep in mind that Ford manufactured 2,406 units in North America alone in 2010 (over 5,000 world wide), whereas Boeing delivered 376 737s in 2010 (which broke their previous record, the photo on the left is the record breaking airplane!).

The entire process of design, manufacture, and knowledge from testing and field studies takes more time and effort for aircraft.  I bring this up because it is harder to predict where airframes will go.  We believe, but are not yet sure, that Boeing will be coming out with the 797 (a 737 replacement), but we will not see EIS (entry into service) until 2020.  A lot can change in nine years.

Let's start with the obvious changes in aircraft over the next several years.
First and foremost I believe that we will see more and more carbon fiber composite airframes.  The lighter weight that we can make the planes, the easier it will be for the customer to increase profit margins.  We're already seeing more and more of new materials being used on newer aircraft.

I also believe that we will see a rapid growth in engine efficiency.  The more powerful we can make the engines, and the less fuel they can consume, the better off we are.

We can't forget interior of the aircraft as well.  There's no one who could debate that we are going to see major overhauls to IFE and inflight wifi/wireless technology.  It won't surprise me when I can facetime with someone on the ground from my IFE (which will probably be an iPad glued to the seat infront of me).

There's also modifications to the cabin pressure and  heating and cooling systems.

But what about the things we often don't think of?
In a post entitled "'Bye Hawk' Electric Plane Set to Transform the Skies?", talks about an electric/solar 172.  How many airframes will we see switched to BioFuels or pur electric energy?  There is no doubt that there will be a major shift in the way we power out planes.  We are seeing it already as Lufthansa and others are trying to fly with their own special BioFuel products.

But when will we see some "proactive" company attempt to fly a 737 on solar power?  Or could a company fill the cargo bay of an A320 with with batteries and create a rapid charging system that could recharge while the plane gets turned around in ORD?

Or, maybe just maybe we will start to see a push to break the sound barrier once again.  Remember, if they could do it in the 1960's, surely we could do it now.

So I'm curious, what do you see as the next big thing in airframe advancement?  Leave a comment, and let me know.

But, hey, I'm just some guy who likes to look at airplanes, so what do I know?

No comments: