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News & Advice

Simon Calder: Bionic aircraft? No: seats, seats and more seats

The man who pays his way

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 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 flying is admirable. 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 (pictured below). 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 cabin crew who do their best to make it an agreeable trip.

Not even the future-focused boffins at Airbus are promising time travel. But were a plane-spotter from Gatwick in 1971 teleported to the Sussex airport today, they might be confused by the paintwork – easyJet's orange is dominant, Dan-Air has vanished – but 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 further between fill-ups. And in-flight entertainment is far 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 like a cross-Channel ferry hardly comprises a transformation of travel.

Forty years ago, the airport experience was a dream compared with the indignity of today's security checks. In 2011, any residual glamour that aviation might once have had has long vanished into the stratosphere. 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.

Queuing for the great leap forward

For clues about what flying will be really like in the future, it makes much more sense to read Aircraft Interiors International, rather than Airbus press releases. The latest edition includes a prediction about "The next great step in aircraft" from Ken Dowd of the 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, is aiming to be a flushaway success, with a personal Holy Grail: "A better spray pattern and more velocity for the rinsing situation," which he estimates 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.