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Electric aircraft and ‘bird of prey’ planes: What will the future of flying look like?

Last year, 4.4 billion passengers flew on airlines worldwide. That number is expected to increase to 8.2 billion by 2037. Here's what executives from Airbus, easyJet and Virgin Atlantic predict will happen in time to come.

Electric aircraft and ‘bird of prey’ planes: What will the future of flying look like?

Airbus's “bird of prey” concept plane has feather-like wings. (Photo: Airbus)

How will we fly in the future? Pretty much as we do now, in as much discomfort and struggling to limit the damage to the environment. That was the conclusion I drew from the panel I chaired at the recent FT Weekend Festival – but piercing through that gloomy outcome were glimmers of sunshine.

People are certainly interested in flying’s future. Up against rival talks featuring historian Simon Schama, BBC presenter Mishal Husain and novelist Jeanette Winterson, I was concerned about how many would attend our session. I shouldn’t have worried. It was standing-room only to listen to Tom Mackay, chief financial officer of Virgin Atlantic, Sandra Bour Schaeffer, a leading Airbus engineer and innovator, and Gary Smith, head of transformation at easyJet. People care about flying and what will happen to it.

Will flying go electric? An audience member alerted us to Alice, a nine-seat all-electric 650-mile (1,046km) range aircraft manufactured by Eviation, an Israeli company, which made its first appearance at the Paris Air Show in June. Bour Schaeffer thought we could see electric air taxis in the next few years; electric commercial passenger aircraft of greater size were a long way off.

Smith said easyJet was working with Wright Electric, a US company, to develop an electric aircraft for its services, which are short-haul. Airbus is working on a hybrid electric/fuel plane, but it will be decades before any of these go into service.

Airbus has been showing off a “bird of prey” plane, with feather-like wings, but this was like a concept car, Bour Schaeffer said, aimed at provoking thought and enticing youngsters into engineering, rather than an aircraft we can expect to see flying.

What can we do in the meantime? Last year, 4.4 billion passengers flew on airlines worldwide. The International Air Transport Association expects this to increase to 8.2 billion by 2037 – more than the number of people living in the world today.

Air travel accounts for a small proportion of carbon dioxide emissions but, as cars go electric and new train lines are built, flying will look increasingly indefensible.

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Biofuels are not a large-scale answer. Producing them requires too much land. Mackay said Virgin had experimented with producing fuel from a steel mill’s waste gases.

Factory emissions could be a source of aviation fuel. In the meantime, aircraft such as Airbus’s new A350 are far more fuel-efficient than the aircraft they were replacing.

The panel said aircraft were flying with more passengers. We’d noticed, the audience said. One attendee asked a tall young man sitting at the front to stand up. How was he expected to fit into today’s airline seats? Better materials would create slimmer seats, giving passengers more legroom, the panellists said.

There would be more to divert them too. New aircraft such as the A350 have far better WiFi connections.

I asked the audience whether or not they welcomed better internet connections in the air. On a show of hands, the noes had it.

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The environment wasn’t the only issue. As the number of passengers increased, Bour Schaeffer said the number of passenger aircraft pilots required would rise from 200,000 today to 600,000 over the next 20 years.

Planes might have to be flown by one pilot rather than two, with technology playing a bigger role. With two crashes of the Boeing 737 Max in mind, believed to be caused by software problems, the audience did not like the sound of this.

One audience member pointed out that aviation needs society’s approval if it is to continue to prosper. That doesn’t depend solely on the industry. Those of us who fly regularly need to think too about how much of it we really need to do.

By Michael Skapinker © 2019 The Financial Times Ltd

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