Air travel is changing and many of the transformations are due to the rapid pace of new technology. As innovation runs rampant through the flight industry, both airplane builders and airlines are having to take note.
The biggest problem is that many of the companies involved are not used to reacting quickly to change and when technology hits, it hits fast. If we look at how long it takes for a new plane to be built, it can take ten years before it is ready to be used and once in the air, it needs to remain running for several decades after that.
A sign of the times
Overhauls that impact upon the airline industry, have happened slowly in the past. However, currently the airline sector is within a revolutionary period when it comes to bringing new technology into play. Aircraft are finding themselves with new composite bodies, satellite-based internet and things such as geared turbofan engines are being added.
The industry has been forced to keep pace with the times, hence the speed of change is having to gain momentum. If we compare it to the automobile industry where new advances are expected all the time, aircraft designers have realised that they have to follow suit. With this in mind, many technological innovations are now finding their way into regular use and there are many more to come.
The new Boeing 747-8
But how revolutionary are these changes going to be and how will new technology change aircraft as we know them? The new Boeing 747-8 is one good example of how change is impacting in a very positive way. As well as a changes to the design, the really big improvements are to be found if we look at the extended software control of many of the functions that were previously mechanical.
But how will these changes work in practice? To begin with the new flight control system will automatically make any alterations required to negate any vibrations that occur in flight, even before the pilot detects them. The addition of LED lighting will also make the plane very ‘Green’. Add to this the improved fuel economy and you have a sure-fire winner.
Boeing are taking good advantage of the latest technology and use of applications, but what are other companies within the industry doing?
Let’s look at some of the other technologically innovative advances hitting the aircraft industry:
• Electric propulsion – we have seen piston power switch to turbine power and now electric power is on the way. The era of the electric aircraft is no longer confined in the realms of sci-fi. Several years ago, Airbus showcased its all-electric E-Fan demonstration aircraft, a 2-seater powered by electric motors. Now Boeing and JetBlue are investing in electric aircraft and the Zunum Company is planning to introduce a 12-passenger hybrid-electric prop plane by 2022.
• Hypersonic travel – electricity is quiet and eco-friendly but hypersonic is all of that and fast too. Back in 2003, Concorde went into retirement, leaving the airline industry without a supersonic passenger plane. Now Airbus and Boeing are looking into improving the speed of flight. In 2015 we saw Airbus patent a hypersonic jet, hitting a speed of 4.5 x times the speed of sound. Boeing have now announced that they expect hypersonic commercial flights to be available within the next ten years or so, with passengers willing to pay extra able to fly from New York to Shanghai in under two hours.
• Biofuels – jets run on kerosene but, in the future, this will be changed to biofuel. Cutting back dramatically on greenhouse emissions, United, KLM, and Singapore airlines have all made use of biofuel for commercial flights. Current biofuels are created from a wide range of materials such as vegetable oil and ethanol from plants. Going one better, Virgin Atlantic is looking at creating their own biofuel by utilising waste gases from steel mills.
• Autonomous flight – the systems that used to help pilots are now on the verge of taking over. Already the Emirates airline is trying out pilotless flights over short distances in Dubai. It won’t be long before other major players in the aviation industry jump on the bandwagon. Boeing have already taken over an aviation research firm that is focusing on the design of unmanned aircraft. But why are they so keen to replace pilots? By using technology instead of a person to fly the plane, a lot of money will be saved. The industry is looking at saving billions by making use of autonomous flight technology.
• Biometrics – the check-in process has already been greatly improved by the use of new technology, allowing passengers to use app-based QR codes. But it isn’t going to stop there. In the future we won’t need even that as check-in will take place using biometrics. JetBlue is working on using facial recognition technology instead of using electronic or paper boarding passes. All that people will need to do when checking-in is stand in front of a camera; their picture will then be matched with the one held on the customs database. Delta Airlines are also looking at using the same facial recognition technology to speed up the baggage system whilst choosing to use a fingerprint-based process for automatic check-in.
• Connectivity and entertainment – with in-flight entertainment having come a long way, connectivity is also rapidly improving and it won’t take many years before we see pay-phones available to use once on board. Whilst entertainment provided in the backs of seats used to be the next ‘big thing’, it will soon be obsolete. By tapping into satellite-based internet connectivity and making use of smart devices, streaming entertainment will soon be seen in-flight with American, Delta, Southwest, and United airlines already using wireless streaming. Currently, JetBlue provides its passengers with free high-speed internet and Delta is coming in with free in-flight texting.
Passengers reap the benefits
So it is already clear to see that the airline industry is taking note of the rapid changes in technology and is doing all possible to keep up with them. The many positive transformations taking place are providing passengers with a heap of benefits and these are going to increase in the future. Whilst in the past the industry was able to move at a much slower speed, now it is having to quicken its pace.
With each of the airlines vying for top position, if they don’t keep up with the competition then passengers will have no mercy, opting to fly with the airlines that are offering the most improved and up-to-date in-flight experience. As the latest innovative new technology rears its head, they have to be seen to be keeping up with the latest trends.
At the same time, research is also showing that by taking heed of hi-tech, safety can be improved, money can be saved and airlines can become much ‘Greener’.