Expect a little turbulence

Wings, body and a tail are here to stay, writer Guy Mansell discovers, as the planemakers promote their designs for beyond the millennium at Farnborough Airshow. Cost and safety come before beauty in an unflying start to a new era
ON A blustery December day in 1903, two bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright, dared to trespass into the domain of birds and gods.

Still short of a century, aviation history has since acquired a range of heroes, from visionaries and inventors to pioneers and barnstormers. Names such as Alcock and Brown, Bleriot and Lindberg are standard fixtures. But next time you contort and shuffle to your airline seat, spare a thought for Mr A C "Abe" Pheil whose name features nowhere: not even this week, when the world's airlines gather at the planemaker's global market, the Farnborough Airshow.

Abe's moment in aeronautical history lasted half-an- hour. On New Year's day 1914, in St Petersburg, Florida, Abe outbid all others with a hefty $400 to buy up the one and only $5 passenger seat on the inaugural flight of the world's first scheduled air service, a flight from St Petersburg to Tampa. He thus became the first airline passenger in history.

News from Farnborough this week will tell us that air travel is expected to triple in volume within 20 years; we will also learn how we might be flying beyond the millennium. Orders will be placed for new airliners - some still on the drawing boards - which are sold in fistfuls with bills in billions. We will hear about 600-seat aircraft like the triple-deck Airbus A3XX, which will fly in 2003. Boeing might confirm that their 747 jumbo (a design dating back to 1963) is likely to be stretched or fattened to carry over 500. But there will be few bold futuristic designs, just new improved versions of familiar jetliners with their underwing engines.

Basically, we seem set to keep flying at much the same speed in much the same looking "kit" for at least the next 15 years. Concepts for quick travel via space, like the Hottel project, have faded and do not look possible until 2030 at the earliest (though for those with a craving for the celestial experience, thrill rides of a few hours in space are scheduled to begin in 2001).

So what will be new for us to experience the other side of the millennium? More or less leg-room, delays, herding, stress, or boredom smothered with homogenised smiles and electronic entertainment treats?

Those anticipating a return to the simplicity of Abe's experience - stepping into an open seat in the wood, wire and fabric Benoist airboat - are likely to be disappointed. The combined hassles of getting to the airport, parking, bag-carrying, check-in, all those security checks, delays, gate check, and being bossed around by hosts of uniforms, are not going to vanish, even if Heathrow does believe that Terminal 5 will bring improvements with its satellite check-ins coupled to dedicated transit systems.

What the planemakers are not going to be offering at Farnborough are innovative shapes beyond the "stability" stereo design of wings, body and tail. The nearest innovation will be Boeing's concept of a "blended wing" airliner based on the fuselage being merged into the wing, but even this, they say, is "a long way off". Likewise, any Supersonic replacements are unlikely. Concorde will blast her way across the Atlantic for another 16 years, maybe with quieter propulsion units, while Boeing is still "considering" developing a 300-seater for trans-oceanic flights. Nothing really new or innovative is on the horizon.

Dominating the minds of both the manufacturers and their airline customers will be cost and the economic conundrum so special to this industry. Planemakers will be asking airlines to pay more per seat, and airlines will be charging us less to fill that seat.

Air travel is now all about cost. The looks of an aircraft no longer matter. Few people choose their flight according to the airline these days. Neither do we choose our airline because of the aircraft as we did in the 1950s, when we would select say, a turbo prop Viscount for speed and smoothness, against another carrier's noisier piston-engined aircraft. The entry of the jet airliner confirmed our demands for speed and quietness, which are now automatic criteria.

But will people ever again want to savour the sight of a desert sunrise from 30,000ft? Airline think-tanks and focus groups are constantly discussing what we might want for a "better quality experience" during non-stop flights of up to 13 hours. What is interesting in these discussions is that many of the ideas being enthused over today were already practice in the 1950s.

BOAC's transatlantic Monarch service, for example, offered bunk beds on its double-deck Stratocruisers, as did TWA's Constellations. The Saunders Roe Princess flying boats of 1950 envisaged the cruise-ship comforts of a promenade area, dinning room and sleeping cabins with chambermaids!

Today, Richard Branson's Virgin wants to make better use of any space beyond seating - which still looks like serried rows - for "more fun, enjoyment and relaxation". They are talking about gymnasiums, showers, business suites, different lounge areas, double bed cabins, gender-only loos, plus more seat-back entertainment for their 8 Airbus, 340-600 series, due to enter service in 2002.

BA, which has recently placed a multibillion order, foresees much the same. There will be more flexibility with quick-change interiors where loos and galleys can be moved to create cabins and seat pitches to match the type of traveller on that route. There might be more variable seat pricing, more choice of service including meals at times your tummy requires, ordered via seatback video with a vast menu of entertainment. For the business traveller, there will be power points for their laptops with "up and downloading" to their offices, plus more carry-on space. Some carriers are even considering on-board gambling.

Once upon a time, airliners had names. Travellers could extol a plane's virtues or faults. Clipper, Dakota, Constellation, Ambassador, Concorde. Today's and tomorrow's jetliners seem to spring from a numerical DNA base - like the 737, (first flight 1956) to a new improved genus number, which in this case is reaching the 900 series. The magic of flying in varying aircraft has gone, as has the adrenalin excitement that Abe was prepared to outbid all others for.

While there might be nostalgia, in my case, for more leg-room, flying has at least continued to become safer. Advances are continuous with spectacular gains being made in structures, metals, materials, systems, avionics and global satellite networks aiding navigation and communications. Likewise with engines that burn less fuel and give more power with significantly less emission and community noise.

Less charming but a good deal safer? That would probably be Abe's verdict, especially after what happened to the pilot of that first-ever scheduled passenger flight - he was killed in 1916, just four years later, in a plane crash. But that's another story that Farnborough will not be promoting this week.


Public Days

Saturday 12 September and Sunday 13 September, 1998.

Gates open 9.30am. Flying display 12.30pm-5pm. Show ends at 6pm.


Advance bookings: pounds 15 per adult, children under 16 free.

Airshow reservation telephone hotline 0870 901 1998.

At the gate: pounds 17 per adult, children under 16 free.

Car parking: Free.

Getting There

By road: located on the A325, 35 miles SW of London accessed via the M3 or A31. Special routes will be in force. London traffic should allow at least two hours.

By coach: express coaches from Central London and Heathrow (tel: 0181- 646 1747).

By rail and shuttle bus: to either Farnborough Mainline, North Camp, or Aldershot stations where shuttle buses will transfer passengers to the airfield. (For rail information, tel: 0345 484950.)

Shuttle bus fares: from Farnborough Mainline: adults pounds 2 return, children pounds 1.50 return. From North Camp: adults pounds 2.50 return, children pounds 2 return. From Aldershot: adults pounds 3 return, children pounds 2 return (For shuttle bus information, tel: 01256 464501.)