Newsweek special report: The future of aviation

[Global] “The first century of air travel has seen about 65 billion passengers take to the sky. The next 65 billion will fly in just the next 20 years”.

This was the bold forecast made last year by Tony Taylor, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This prediction, based on the IATA’s 2014 Passenger Forecast, suggests a change of gear in terms of the rate at which passengers will take to the skies, particularly as standards of living and infrastructure improve in developing countries. But there are enormous unanswered questions about the aviation sector these future flyers will encounter. Which aircraft will carry them? Where from? How fast?

As the global aviation community gathers for the Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Airport this week, it is an opportunity to consider what the future holds for a sector that is fast responding to the demands of a changing world and is growing ever closer to technology that previously belonged to science fiction.

THE CHANGING MAP OF AVIATION

When you think of major aviation hubs, it is cities like London, New York and Paris that come to mind. But the global distribution of aviation passengers is changing rapidly, with relatively stagnant figures in Europe and particularly strong growth visible in Asia and Africa. Developing economies with fast-growing populations and improving living standards are seeing an increased demand for air travel and, in most cases, carriers and governments have been able to meet this demand with competitive pricing and improvements in infrastructure.

The IATA report in 2014 highlights just how much the global aviation map is set to change. The report forecasts that China will replace the US as the largest aviation market by 2030. By 2034, after China and the US, India, Indonesia and Brazil will be the fastest growing markets in terms of passengers added annually, whereas eight of the 10 fastest growing markets by percentage will be in Africa.

The departure exterior of Dubai AirportJean Revillard REZO
The departure exterior of Dubai AirportJean Revillard REZO

These changes are starting to influence long-established travel routes and global aviation systems. Earlier this year it was announced that Dubai International Airport had ousted London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest international airport, with 70.5 million passengers passing through in 2014, a 6% increase on 2013.

It is not that Dubai is significantly ahead of Heathrow – still the world’s busiest airport if you include domestic passengers – but it is the different trajectories that the two aviation hubs are on. A lack of capacity at Heathrow has stunted growth, and the annual rise in passenger numbers in the UK is forecast at just 1-3% until 2050, slowing from the 5% seen over the past 40 years. Aviation in Dubai, in stark contrast, is expanding rapidly. Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, predicts Dubai International will handle a record 79 million passengers in 2015, and the recently opened Al Maktoum International Airport will add a capacity of 120 million passengers when completed in 2022. The danger for long-established airports like Heathrow is that they will be out-competed by Dubai Airports and their carriers of Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways in the battle to transport the ever increasing number of passengers between Asia and the West.

The modest annual growth that the IATA forecasts in European passenger numbers over the next 20 years – just 2.7% – can largely be explained by the high proportion of Europeans who can already afford to fly and the slow growth of the region’s population. In the past two decades the emergence of low-cost carriers (LCCs) like Easyjet and Ryanair significantly boosted European passenger numbers, but aviation consultant Richard Leigh claims this market surge is over. Leigh writes on AviationEconomics.com: “The ‘golden years’ of low-cost in the UK were probably between 1996 and 2006 … Low-cost is now the new normal.”

CAN AVIATION GO GREEN?

The 2% contribution that aviation makes to global manmade CO2 emissions is lower than many might expect. But with the sector facing the prospect of 4.1% annual growth in passenger numbers for the next 20 years, aviation is under pressure to reduce its environmental footprint. A number of green commitments were agreed to in 2009, the most significant of which is a 50% cut in net emissions by 2050, when compared with 2005 figures.

Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard flew Solar Impulse 2 for 44 hours
Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard flew Solar Impulse 2 for 44 hours

To deliver on these commitments, much faith has been placed in the use of biofuel as a substitute for jet fuel. These fuels must be made from sustainable, non-food biomass sources such as camelina, halphytes and jatropha. Even used cooking oil, public waste and algae can be converted to a fuel that produces 80% less emissions than its predecessor. Biofuel is already in use: in 2011 Alaska Airlines flew multiple commercial passenger flights with a fuel refined from cooking oil, becoming the first US airline to do so. But this method also faces significant challenges, particularly in ensuring that the production of food crops for biofuel in no way interferes with land use for the production of food; an “environmental” solution that converted agricultural land to land used to produce fuel would not keep its green credentials for long. There is also a question of economic feasibility, as Peter Hind writes in Regional International: “Even adding the carbon cost to the price of jet fuel, it is far more economically advantageous to burn regular fuel and pay the carbon penalty than to switch to biofuel”.

Alternative sources of energy are being explored, with solar power currently making headlines as the Solar Impulse team attempt the first manned round-the-world solar flight. There is a clear desire to introduce sustainable energy sources but it seems for now they will be used to supplement current operations – like solar power for in-flight electronics or biofuel added to jet fuel – rather than create revolutionary new systems.

THE RETURN OF SUPERSONIC TRAVEL

It is a strange quirk of the aviation sector that in 1979, passengers could travel from London to New York in half the time that it takes them today. The closure of Concorde in 2003 meant an end to the three-and-a-half-hour trans-Atlantic journey, but recent investment and renewed ambition in this market suggests that a supersonic business jet is on the horizon.

Airbus and Aerion are developing the AS2 Supersonic Business Jet
Airbus and Aerion are developing the AS2 Supersonic Business Jet

Supersonic flight is not easy: the technical challenges and costs are enormous. The public perception of Concorde was damaged enormously by a crash in July 2000 in which 113 people were killed. Even if public confidence in the safety of supersonic flight can be regained, strict regulations exist in many countries, including the US, that prevent flights of such speed over land because of noise concerns.

Undeterred, the Nevada-based supersonic engineering company Aerion has teamed up with Airbus to launch the AS2 Supersonic Business Jet. The plane will be able to reach Mach 1.5. and it’s designed so that no sonic boom will be heard on the ground, something likely to please regulators.

The aim is to undertake the first test flight of the faster-than-sound jet in 2019 and Robert M Bass, the Aerion chairman speaking at the launch of the Airbus partnership, feels the company is “solidly on track towards [the] objective of certifying the world’s first supersonic business jet in 2021”. Aerion and Airbus are facing a significant challenge from Boston-based Spike Aerospace, however, as the company plans to launch a jet capable of Mach 1.6. – 1100 mph – by the end of the decade.

What is consistent about the models planned by both Aerion and Spike Aerospace is that they are significantly smaller than Concorde, space for roughly 10-18 people, with an exclusive focus on business luxury. This will be reflected in the high cost of travel, predicted to be significantly more than today’s business jets, but flyers will be getting to their destination considerably faster.

COULD YOUR NEXT HOLIDAY BE IN SPACE?

In April 1961, the Soviet Union made cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin the first man in space. 55 years later, Gagarin remains in a relatively exclusive club of those who have crossed the Kármán line which, 100km above the Earth’s surface, serves as the nominal edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. Today 547 people have been into space, representing 35 different countries, but with the recent emergence of private space travel and the significant size of the players in this market, holidays spent among the stars may no longer be such a distant fantasy.

Elon Musk's SpaceX has already become the first private firm to deliver cargo to the International Space Station
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already become the first private firm to deliver cargo to the International Space Station

You just have to look at some of the names investing in private space travel to know the scale of the opportunity: Elon Musk, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson. A new kind of space race has emerged; it’s high-cost, high-risk and the prize is not yet fully known, but the presence of these technology moguls ensures that it will be an interesting contest and not short on ambition or investment.

The principal aim of this new sector is the democratisation of space; to make trips outside the Earth’s atmosphere a new and viable kind of tourism. Virgin Galactic passengers will travel inside a spaceship propelled to a release altitude of 50,000ft by a jet-powered aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo. Upon release, SpaceshipTwo will engage its rockets and travel at three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, acquainting its passengers with moderate G-forces and then celestial silence and true weightlessness as the craft coasts in space. Re-entry for Virgin Galactic means strapping in and returning to the Earth’s atmosphere, the craft reconfiguring its wings on the descent to help it glide to a runway landing. Becoming an astronaut with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, however, involves experiencing space and weightlessness from a windowed capsule, before floating back down to earth by way of parachute.

The ambitions of Elon Musk’s SpaceX extend far beyond space tourism. The company, founded in 2002 and with more than 3,000 employees, aims to “revolutionise space technology” and in 2012 working with Nasa, it became the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. But SpaceX’s ambitious founder has even grander plans. On Startalk Radio in March, Musk claimed: “I think we’ve got a decent shot of sending a person to Mars in about 11 or 12 years.” The race to the Red Planet is on. Nasa has set a date for a manned trip to Mars in the 2030s but could lose out to Mars One, the private Dutch company planning a wildly ambitious one-way expedition to colonise the planet in 2027.

DRONES ARE HERE TO STAY

The role that unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – look set to play in the future of aviation is fast changing. As a military technology, drones became synonymous with the 2001 US-led “War on Terror” to target al-Qaida and the Taliban without risking pilots’ lives. It is incorrect to think of all military drones as for combat, however: of the 8,000 drones owned by the US army, only 1% are armed. The potential of drones today extends far beyond battle, with uses for delivery, surveillance, agriculture, disaster-relief and even the media.

A drone in action Drone, Parrot Bebop
A drone in action Drone, Parrot Bebop

It is no longer difficult to own a drone. Googling “cheap drones” will provide you with a range of options for under €150, and a drone mounted with a camera can be yours for less than €250. Manageable prices and rapid improvements in technology are being driven by a competitive drone market that many believe is just beginning to take off: Business Insider’s Drone Report predicts that the commercial /civilian market will grow at an annual rate of 19% between 2015 and 2020. The US market is the largest, with the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) forecasting that it could grow to $82bn by 2025, creating 100,000 jobs, but Switzerland, China, Canada, Sweden and Korea are also emerging as significant producers.

Drones are already beginning to have a significant impact across a variety of sectors. The energy industry has used drones in surveys for oil, gas and mineral exploitation, as well as to monitor vital infrastructure like pipes and pylons. In agriculture they are used to examine large areas of crops in close detail, as well as to precisely administer pesticides and nutrients. Video journalists use drones to capture footage in dangerous situations. The main function of the majority of drones is surveillance. Following a successful trial at London Gatwick, drones will now be used for security at all five of London’s airports over the next 18 months, adding to the 50,000 drones already estimated to be in the UK. George Trebess from the National Counter Terrorism Policing Headquarters told the Counter Terror Expo in London that “the new system we will be able to carry out missions around seven times faster than ground-based activity and at around 10% of the cost”.

The main challenge drones face is legislation, as governments move to regulate and police a technology that has gone from being prohibitively expensive and specialist to widely available in just a few years. Private drones are legal to fly in the US, the UK and the EU, but search YouTube for “drone harassment” and you can find numerous examples that many police officers are not aware of this. As the number of amateur drone pilots multiplies further regulation is needed, as highlighted by a near-miss in which a landing Airbus 320 nearly crashed into an unidentified drone in London last summer. New regulations are in the pipeline for 2015 in the United States and the EU, but it is the EU that looks to be the most willing to innovate and accept drones into the current aviation system, which will help the pace of industry growth in the region.

 

Photo: The crew of Solar Impulse 2, attempting the first solar-powered circumnavigation of the globe, fly over the Nagano mountain region, JapanSolar Impulse

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