Making predictions about the future of aviation is dangerous; after all so many have got it wrong before. Few in aviation’s golden age could have foreseen how cheap flying would become; in 1939 a trans-Atlantic airline ticket cost up to $90,000 in today’s money and nobody predicted the transatlantic passenger liner would ever be replaced. Airships were supposed to be the way of the future, not aircraft.
Experts believed the aviation industry would die because of environmental concerns and falling passenger numbers. But despite these concerns it has not collapsed. In some sectors, business and leisure travel are booming. Airports are getting busier, even in a Europe grappling with downturn and austerity. All the major regions are improving and we are seeing real growth in Africa for the first time, with new African carriers appearing. New generations of aircraft like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 are far more efficient than older aircraft – 70% more fuel-efficient than aircraft of 40 years ago, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Transport’s impact on the environment is lessening, and nowhere will the impact be greater than in aviation.
By the year 2050, the world’s population may have risen to 10 billion, with 75% of them living in cities. These cities will be ever-more connected by air, dependant on the movement of people and goods between them. It is too late to turn our backs on air travel, so how do we make it more efficient, and stop the skies becoming completely congested?
New materials and new engine technology will continue to make aviation more efficient. Plane designs will make more use of carbon composites and, in the future, carbon nanofibres. Air traffic control and airport management will also be revolutionised as digital technology makes aircraft easier to manage. This could result in long-haul travel which is markedly more efficient. Lighter aircraft can be bigger and carry more freight and passengers.
In years to come they can be flown remotely, too. In the case of freighters, this means no crew – so there is an extra weight saving by getting rid of the life support systems and the windows. Passenger aircraft might not be remotely flown – we will still feel safer with a human in the cockpit – but automated air traffic could double the capacity of the flight paths around the world and only airport capacity would constrain us. The stuff of science fiction? Not exactly. British Aerospace flew an aircraft remotely to Inverness in Scotland this summer in a Civil Aviation Authority-supported experiment. Allowing UAVs to monitor and spray crops is already regulated and sanctioned in both North and South America.
Another will be the fuel itself. The best bio fuel for aviation is probably butanol, an alcohol which behaves very like the kerosene that the jet engines of today use. Jet engine efficiency has come on in leaps and bounds, but the fuels they use are still polluting hydrocarbons which come out of the ground. Butanol can be produced by bacteria in biomass and if an economically efficient method can be found to industrialise that process then your flight of the future could literally be fuelled by alcohol.
The number of aircraft flying on our skies, however, also depends on the infrastructure to safely manage it. The US, for instance, currently has some of the most antiquated air traffic management in the developed world as a result of Congress failing to back reforms proposed by the Federal Aviation Authority after a very famous air traffic controllers strike more than 25 years ago. However, when change does come it will be dramatic.