Simon Calder: The future of air travel? More seats, fewer loos

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The Independent Online

Forget the present hierarchy of economy, business and first-class air travel. This week, we were assured that 40 years from now, we will be flying in aircraft that are divided according to how you like to spend your time on board. The vision of the future came courtesy of Airbus. The Toulouse-based aircraft maker reckons planes will comprise a "vitalising" zone at the front; an "interactive" area in the middle in which passengers snuggle up – not with each other, but with virtual-reality technology – and a "smart tech" space at the back where air warriors can despatch commands to the corners of the globe by whatever instant communications have replaced emails by then. No need for windows, either, thanks to "the cabin's bionic structure coated with a biopolymer membrane".

Blue-sky thinking about how we will fly is commendable. But anyone who believes the in-flight experience will change so much in four decades is deluding themselves – as a glimpse back 40 years shows. I happen to be writing this column scrunched up in seat 16A aboard easyJet flight 5056 flying from the Mediterranean to Gatwick. Four decades ago, passengers were squeezed into similar aircraft flying the same course at an identical speed. In motoring terms, we are all still passengers in an Mk3 Ford Cortina.

Sure, under the bonnet a vast amount has changed: planes are quieter, smarter, more efficient and far, far safer. But from the passenger's perspective, today's Airbus A319 offers the same in-flight experience as the Boeing 737, whether in 1971 or 2011: six seats abreast, not quite enough personal space and legroom, with professional crew who do their best to make it an agreeable trip.

So how much has

really changed?

Not even the future-focused boffins at Airbus are promising time travel. If a 1971 plane-spotter from Gatwick was teleported to the Sussex airport today, they would be confused by the paintwork – easyJet's orange is now dominant, while Dan-Air has disappeared – but they would have no difficulty identifying the planes.

While the elegant but uneconomic British Comet and French Caravelle have long been consigned to the breaker's yard, the Boeing 737 remains the workhorse for shorter trips, and the 747 is the long-haul mainstay. The "sub-jumbos" – today's Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 – have disposed of the third engine in the tail that the old DC10s and Tristars possessed, but for those of us in the cheap seats there have been only two significant changes for long-range flights.

Today's Ford Cortina – sorry, jet airliner – can go much further between fill-ups: in 1971 airlines that advertised transatlantic non-stop flights often failed to deliver when strong headwinds necessitated a refuelling stop. And in-flight entertainment is far richer and more sophisticated. Beyond that? Not much to report. I seem to recall being promised delights such as squash courts and bowling alleys aboard the "superjumbo", the Airbus A380. All we got were seats, seats and more seats. True, Korean Air has just opened the world's first in-flight duty free shop on its new A380, but making a £200m long-haul aircraft feel a bit more like a cross-Channel ferry is hardly a transformation of travel.

Forty years ago, the airport experience was a dream compared with the indignity of today's security checks. A good thing, too, because it was based on exclusivity; easyJet and Ryanair have commoditised aviation, and by so doing, democratised it. Flying remains a means to an end. What counts is where you are going, not how you get there.

Flushing out the


For clues about what flying will really be like in the future, it makes much more sense to read Aircraft Interiors International. The latest edition includes a prediction about "The next great step in aircraft" from Ken Dowd of equipment maker Teague. His great leap forward? "The science of anti-microbial surfaces". Mr Dowd aims to ensure you don't catch anything nasty from the last person to use the loo. His rival, Bob Schafer of B/E Aerospace, wants "a better spray pattern and more velocity for the rinsing situation" – which he reckons could save 120lb of fluid per trip on a twin-aisle aircraft.

The magazine hints at a more radical weight- and space-saving option for budget airlines, with the revelation that "there is no regulatory requirement for operable toilets". This is the future of aviation: more seats, fewer loos.