Sketchbook: Flights of fancy

Calling all passengers. The plane now standing at Gate 27 will depart in four years' time. It will hurtle you to the other side of the planet in under two hours. Welcome to the future of air travel. Illustrations by Stephen Parkes. Words by Stephen Armstrong
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As a 10-year-old, I joined the Air Training Corps because I wanted to fly. I joined up with my mate Edward Mullen, who wanted to know what it was like above the clouds. Twenty years later, a 10-year-old Edward Mullen wouldn't need to enrol in the ATC to answer that question because, statistically, he stands a better than 50:50 chance of having flown to at least two foreign countries.

In the financial year 1998-99, the British Airports Authority counted 112.5 million people travelling through the seven airports it manages. In 1990 the figure was barely 71 million. And it's a pattern repeated all around the world.

And yet, all is not well in the skies. Since Boeing created the workhorse of the long-haul flight, the Boeing 747, in the Sixties, very little has changed in aircraft technology. The 747's cockpit and controls have, of course, been updated but the basic design is almost 40 years old. No one really knows what to replace it with, or what will happen next in air travel.

At the Paris Airshow in June, confusion reigned when Boeing predicted that the future lay with smaller and medium-sized aircraft while Airbus - the other main player in a market expected to be worth $3 trillion over the next 10 years - announced it was banking on planes much larger than we've ever seen before.

Both companies are trying to find a solution to the same dilemmas: they know that there are more and more passengers wanting to travel every year. They know that increasing environmental concerns are restricting the growth of airports and cutting back on the freedom of loud planes to fly wherever they want. Here, fresh from the Paris Airshow, we bring you the latest thinking and the hottest prototypes of the jets that could be taking you on your holiday in five years' time, from the extremely groovy to the frankly outlandish ...

Bell/Augusta BA 609 Tiltrotor

Made by: Bell/Augusta Aerospace

Development stage: full-size flying prototype

Date to market: next year

The difficulty with a helicopter is that it can't go as fast as an aeroplane or its rotors break and it falls out of the sky. The problem with a small aeroplane is that it can't land on top of skyscrapers. This is a big problem for the Rupert Murdochs of this world. They have to get from A to B in double-quick time. It's a status thing. In a curious Texan/Italian joint venture, the Bell/Augusta Aerospace Company will solve this hideous dilemma with its BA 609 tiltrotor. Essentially, the huge propellers at the ends of the wing take 20 seconds to switch between pointing forwards or upwards, allowing the 609 to fly as a fixed-wing turbo prop or a traditional helicopter. It's twice as fast as a helicopter and has twice the range but can take off and land vertically.

Aile Volante (Flying Wing)

Made by: Aerospatiale Matra

Development stage: drawing board

Date to market: 2020

For years, the mighty Concorde looked like dying out as the remaining BA and Air France planes slowly grew too old to fly. Recently, however, the French Aerospatiale Matra has started producing models of replacements. By 2015 it plans to introduce a plane that looks similar but is far quieter. The models have no windows at all, relying instead on so-called synthetic vision. This may seem a bit Fifties Eagle Annual but far more Dan Dare is Aerospatiale's Flying Wing project, the Aile Volante, which is supposed to be available in 2020. The Flying Wing will carry 1,000 passengers and, with preliminary design work completed, looks set to be too big for most airports unless its wings fold up in the manner of fighters on aircraft carriers. Aerospatiale is also working on hypersonic travel, which means hurling passengers through the air at Mach 5-7. This is unlikely to be ready for at least 50 years.


Made by: Embraer

Development stage: flying versions

Date to market: November 1999

While the Superjumbo (pictured right) and the Aile Volante projects aim to cram hundreds of passengers into giant planes, the industry is also getting terribly excited about the "regional aircraft market". Until recently, it was assumed that the jet engine was not efficient enough to work economically on small passenger jets. Island-hopping and internal flights in countries as small as the UK have been the preserve of the old turbo-prop machines almost since flying was invented. This year's Paris Airshow, however, saw the debut of the Brazilian aircraft company Embraer's ERJ 135 and 145. These tiny jets can carry 37 and 50 passengers respectively, with recently developed twin-jet engines that are economical enough for an airline to fly this few people and still make money. Inside, they seat three across with an aisle dividing the seats into a single and a pair. After their stunning debut, Embraer has already clocked up 791 orders, although it has yet to deliver a plane. They could change the face of UK internal business travel.


Made by: Airbus

Development stage: prototype

Date to market: 2005

As the 747 breathes its last, the hot word in the airline industry is Superjumbo. There's currently a race in the research and development labs of the aircraft manufacturers to be the first to produce these behemoths. Airbus is preparing to step into the breach with its double-decker A3XX series - the biggest passenger plane the world has ever seen. 747s, depending on the seat configuration, carry between 350 and 400 passengers; the A3XX can carry between 480 and 650, and Airbus is currently telling airlines that it can travel for less per passenger than the 747. Entering the Superjumbo will be like walking on to a cruise ship. Both decks can be fitted with wider seats than those found on the largest aircraft to date, meaning a kindly airline could give economy passengers a taste of the business class experience. With another trend being towards all-business-class flights, however, that seems unlikely. Instead, first-class passengers may get their own cabins while the rest of us huddle up. There's also room for stand- up bars and, astonishingly, a suggestion that a disco could be incorporated into the wider lower deck. In theory, the A3XX will be heading out to the airlines in 2005, although Airbus has yet to build a prototype and is still working with 1:35 scale models. To make sure they get what they want, 19 airlines, including Virgin and British Airways, are currently helping Airbus with its enquiries. n