Future of flight: From the return of supersonic travel to pods that clip onto planes

Fasten your seatbelt: you’re about to embark on the flight of the future. This high-tech journey – departing in the 2060s – starts at Abu Dhabi’s central rail station, where you board a train that whisks you to the airport at 200 miles per hour. Above you, at 60,000 feet, a supersonic jet lets out […]

Fasten your seatbelt: you’re about to embark on the flight of the future. This high-tech journey – departing in the 2060s – starts at Abu Dhabi’s central rail station, where you board a train that whisks you to the airport at 200 miles per hour.

Above you, at 60,000 feet, a supersonic jet lets out its trademark “boom” as it accelerates towards its top speed of 2,335 kilometres per hour on a three-hour $100 flight to London. On the airfield a “hypersonic” plane is about to embark on a longer journey to San Francisco, in which it will soar 80km above Earth for a journey that will take just 90 minutes.

Your train grinds to a halt at the airport. But instead of disembarking, your capsule-like carriage is automatically “clipped” – along with two separate pods, one holding passengers from Dubai, the other cargo – onto an awaiting fixed-wing aircraft. Your “train” is now a plane and you’re ready for take-off – all without leaving your seat or, indeed, queuing at passport control.

It sounds like a flight of fancy. But in 2016 all these aviation technologies are being explored or even developed – pointing to radically different travel experiences in the decades to come.

Just ask Blake Scholl, a United States aviation entrepreneur and pilot. He says: “I want to live in a world where we can get anywhere on the planet in five hours – for $100.”

It’s an ambitious aim, but Scholl is founder of Boom Technology, in Denver, which plans to reintroduce supersonic passenger travel within a decade. A former Amazon executive who created mobile technology start-up Kima Labs, later acquired by Groupon, this year unveiled the design of a 40-seat plane that would fly up to 2,335kph, travelling from New York to London in three-and-a-half hours. A trip from Abu Dhabi to the UK capital would be even shorter.

“It’s going to change the way we experience the world,” he says.

Aside from the business market, the aviation entrepreneur sees supersonic flights opening up leisure travel – cutting in half the 14-hour flight between Abu Dhabi and Sydney, for example. “You come into work on a Monday morning and people [ask], ‘What did you do over the weekend?’,” says Scholl. “Imagine if you could say ‘I went to the opera in Sydney’.”

Richard Branson’s Virgin empire has already taken options to buy 10 Boom jets, with a European carrier having reserved another 15. And Scholl says the Arabian Gulf is likely to be “one of the very first markets” where Boom’s supersonic jets will fly.

Two of the Gulf’s biggest airlines have expressed interest in supersonic jets. Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, said in April that supersonic travel was “hugely viable” due to technology having moved on after the “fuel guzzling” engines used by Concorde.

“In 10 years’ time, there will be a very high probability of Boeing and Airbus launching something similar,” he told the Dubai Eye radio station. Dubai’s Emirates airline once dismissed supersonic travel as too expensive and damaging to the environment. But Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief executive of Emirates Airline and Group, told the radio station the same month that he hoped supersonic travel would one day once more be possible.

And the UAE also has an interest in faster air travel through Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments, which has a 37.8 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic. While Branson’s pioneering company is initially looking at space tourism, it has said it could also make passenger jets for long-haul travel above the Earth’s atmosphere. Such technology would reportedly allow passengers to travel from London to Sydney in just two-and-a-half hours.

“The Middle Eastern interest is tremendous,” says Scholl. “If you look at the leading airlines in the world, they are the ones based in the Middle East – the Qatar [Airways], the Emirates, the Etihads… Those guys are the leaders in passenger experience today. And it only stands to reason that at least one of those is going to offer the new leading travel product.”

A prototype Boom jet is set to fly at the end of next year, after which rigorous safety, certification and regulatory approvals processes would be required before a passenger model could take off. But given the proposed design only currently uses existing aviation technology, Scholl expects “no major roadblocks” and says the first Boom supersonic jets could launch in less than 10 years’ time.

It would not, of course, be the world’s first supersonic passenger jet. That honour was taken by the Concorde, which first flew with paying passengers back in 1976.

Scholl describes Concorde as the “elephant in the room” when talking about the rebirth of supersonic travel. But he says the extremely high price of tickets – up to $20,000 – on the joint UK and France-developed plane made it economically unfeasible.

Boom plans to sell its first round-trip tickets for about $5,000 – putting them roughly in the same bracket as top-priced business class tickets. But Scholl says this could come down as supersonic travel becomes more mainstream, using even bigger planes.

Scholl says that while the first 50 years of aviation saw fundamental advances in technology, developments over the past 50 years have been along the same trajectory.

“If you look at an [Airbus] A380 and you look at a Boeing 707 from the late 1950s, and you squint, they’re kind of the same airplane,” he says.

There are many other high-tech visions as to how aviation might look in the future. Some propose even faster travel, with scientists at the German Aerospace Center saying last year that “hypersonic” passenger planes – which could carry passengers between Europe and Australia in 90 minutes – could be a reality by 2030. The proposed “SpaceLiner” would be propelled to 50 miles above Earth on the back of an unmanned, reusable rocket-booster craft; it would then detach and the passenger cabin zoom to its destination at 24,140kph.

But the future of flying might not necessarily be about speed: airships are also making a comeback, with one Dubai-based company working on plans to use them for cargo. Airships Arabia is exploring “hybrid airships” technologies and anticipates both freight and passenger operations will start in 2018. The freight services would initially be able to transport 10 tonnes per load at distances of more than 3,500km. It is also exploring passenger services with a potential seating capacity of 48 “in yacht-style comfort”.

The environment is another factor that is shaping how things are developing: Nasa is reportedly developing an electric-powered plane, while the sun-powered Solar Impulse 2 completed the end of its round-the-world journey on Tuesday after landing back in Abu Dhabi. And Airbus – manufacturer of the A380 superjumbo – has proposed the idea of aircraft flying in formation to save fuel.

The future of aviation is not all about what happens in the air. Airport authorities in the UAE have massive expansion plans underway to boost passenger capacity. Abu Dhabi’s main airport is expected to handle 48 million passengers a year by 2025, with numbers boosted by the new Midfield Terminal, expected to open in December 2017.

Dubai International Airport, which opened its US$1.2 billion (Dh4.407 billion) Concourse D in February, expects passenger numbers to hit 85m this year, and up to 103.5m by 2020. And the long-term plan for Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport, currently capable of handling 5m people annually, is for a whopping 220m passengers a year.

One seemingly outlandish proposal for how we will fly in the future is Clip-Air, a concept of the Transportation Center at Switzerland’s Federal Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne (EPFL).

It is a modular system in which pod-like air capsules are transported by a fixed-wing aircraft. Multiple pods could be carried by a single aircraft in different configurations – with more economy class cabins, or all cargo, for example – depending on demand. The pods could even detach and continue their onward journey by rail, without passengers needing to disembark.

Clip-Air sounds far-fetched but its inspiration, says project manager Claudio Leonardi, is actually the humble shipping container.

“The possibilities of modular aviation are very big, and very interesting. When you [consider shipping] containers, it was a big revolution,” he tells me.

Alexandre Milot, industrial liaison officer at EPFL, says the integration of air and rail systems is something being explored. “We’re trying to offer door-to-door travelling systems,” he says.

But Clip-Air is, Milot acknowledges, a long-term project. The first phase of development would involve building a tiny “modular drone”, followed by small aircraft within about 10 years. But the idea of a commercial airliner, with three detachable pods, is probably not realisable until 2060, he says.

Not everyone, of course, agrees that such fantastical flying machines will ever get off the ground.

Aviation expert Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at UK-based StrategicAero Research, says Clip-Air is a “novel idea” but will inevitably be constrained by the huge development costs of linking the air and rail networks.

“The costs involved are huge and you cannot expect airports or cities to stump up money for this,” he says. “In a nutshell, it ain’t happening.”

Ahmad disputed the suggestion by Scholl that progressions in aviation technology have slowed over the past few decades, pointing to the huge steps in aircraft design which makes them lighter, more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly.

And it is these concerns that really matter to airlines, says Ahmad. “[They] aren’t bothered by gimmicky new designs – they want efficiency, lower costs, better environmental performance and assets that hold their value,” he says.

“Real innovation will be low key… The media buzz about Boom, Clip-Air and other fanciful ideas will, in all reality, quickly disappear like the dodo.”

Ahmad points to other proposed revolutionary concepts in aviation, such as on-board swimming pools, which have not materialised. “Why? Airlines want bums-on-seats, not people swimming at 38,000 feet,” he says. “Flights in 2050 will likely be conducted the way they are today – and if anything – with greater airport security, screening and delays.”

Back in the US, Scholl has a more optimistic, and some might say more romantic, view of how we will fly in 2050.

“Going around the world is going to be like going down the street,” he says.

For him, a new era of supersonic travel will mean more than just getting places quickly. It could transform the way humans interact – and even make long-distance relationships less of a problem.

“You can be close to people that you just can’t be close to today.”

Source: Business

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