Saturday 22 July 2017

Future of flight or pie in the sky?

A mock up of the interior of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner
A mock up of the interior of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Could this picture represent the future of air travel? Airbus certainly thinks so. While rival Boeing has been putting the finishing touches to its Dreamliner, the European airline manufacturer has dreamt up what an airline cabin might look like in 2050.

Forget packed overhead bins and vexed passengers crammed into garishly decorated fuselages.

Instead, Airbus imagines a "bionic" frame and a see-through exterior skin that gives passengers panoramic views.

The concept cabin, released in advance of this summer's Paris Air Show, envisages a future where traditional economy and business classes are replaced by personalised zones offering tailored experiences -- mood lighting, vitamin-enriched air or aromatherapy, for example.

The cabin design (see thefuturebyairbus.com) follows that of a concept plane released last year, constructed from 'smart' materials that can sense the load they are under and thus lower emissions.

Passengers in 2050 can expect a "seamless" travel experience, Airbus says. "Whichever flight experience is chosen, the passenger of 2050 will step out of the Airbus Cabin feeling revitalised and enriched."

Frequent flyers could be forgiven for choking on their €5 sandwiches, so the notion of enjoying aromatherapy at the heart of an intelligent cabin is as ridiculous and outlandish as it is tantalising and inventive.

This July, Ryanair became the first airline in Europe to carry eight million passengers in a month. Right now, it's hard to see anything other than a future of cramp-inducing legroom, nuked food, toilet charges and shrinking luggage allowances.

Which isn't to say some of Airbus's ideas couldn't come to pass. Seventy-five years ago this May, Aer Lingus's inaugural flight from Dublin to Bristol -- a De Havilland Dragon biplane (named Iolar, the Irish for eagle) -- took off carrying just five passengers.

Since Iolar, we've seen Carvairs, Vickers Viscounts, Super Connies and 747s roar in and out of a Dublin Airport, which itself has metamorphosed.

The passenger experience has changed spectacularly too, from an elitist golden age into an era of glorified air-buses, with human cargo paying to pre-assign their seats, check luggage and print their boarding cards.

And the changes are still coming. Delta Airlines recently completed the installation of Wi-Fi on its mainline US domestic fleet. Boeing's new Dreamliner has oversized windows allowing views of the horizon from the middle aisles.

Then there's Virgin Galactic. Richard Branson's space tourism venture expects to fly its first customers within two years.

But so much remains up in the air. What role will terrorism and security play in the airliners of the future? What impact will a changing climate have? Will finite fuel resources return air travel to the rich?

Until those question are resolved, notions of see-through skins and cabins where passengers can play virtual golf, or read the kids back home a bedtime story with the planet beneath their feet, are pie in the sky.

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