This Is What Air Travel Will Actually Look Like In 100 Years
A hundred years ago, planes were limited to super-short flights (think less than a minute, in the case of the Wright Brothers) and military seaplanes. That’s when Boeing first entered the picture. So who is to say what air travel will look like in another century?
If anyone is qualified to take a gander, it’s Brian Tillotson and Kevin Bowcutt, two of Boeing’s Senior Technical Fellows who specialize in space travel and hypersonics, respectively. They’re the ones on the front lines of aerospace innovation—engineers who think about crazy concepts like space travel and vertical liftoff, as well as practical innovations like airplanes that can diagnose their own mechanical failures or automatically avoid turbulence. Oh, and then there’s the whacky (but surprisingly practical) idea about making airplanes fully transparent—and not just so that you get a (scary) good view.
So on the eve of the company’s centennial, they talked to Travel + Leisure about the future of flight—in all its potential permutations. Also on the agenda were innovations that will change the way we travel to and through the airport—enhancements to security, the ways that smart home technology can enhance the safety and efficiency of airport terminals, and how our very day-to-day commutes might take to the skies.
It all sounds like something pulled out of the Jetsons, but some of these innovations are truly in the works—Tillotson and Bowcutt estimate that at least one of the following projects will actually come to fruition on a commercial scale by the year 2035. Others are further off in the horizon, but all are grounded in reality, whether they stem from existing technology or are in some early stage of development. Even if they don’t all pan out as expected, one thing is for sure: travelling in the year 2116 will be faster, greener, and a whole lot more exciting.
Flying to the Airport
“One of the great things we look forward to is how your trip begins: A flying vehicle will come pick you up at your workplace or home, and it will probably land and take off vertically without a runway,” Tillotson said. “With three dimensions to play with, you’ll have a lot less traffic and congestion, so you’ll no longer need to budget two hours to get to the airport on time.”
Booking Flights with your Brain
According to Bowcutt, “the way we plan travel might not require a computer or a tablet—it might happen based on something that’s implanted in your brain.” It sounds like something out of a science fiction horror flick, but truly, it’s not so far removed from our addiction to mobile—and now wearable—technology. What Bowcutt proposes is a more evolved version of Uber: “Just thinking that you want a plane to come pick you up will accomplish the task.”
Smart Sensors Replace Security Lines
Tillotson forecasts that airport security will become easier, more efficient, and less intrusive than today’s status quo. In 100 years, “everything will be connected to a network—including your body,” he said. “So with that amount of connectivity, data, and information, it’ll be exponentially easier to know who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy.” Bowcutt agrees, sharing a vision of airport security that involves remote sensors that can scan a room for explosives and other security breaches. With that kind of system in place, just walking through the airport doors would be akin to going through a comprehensive security check.
Planes Will Be See-Through
Here’s a type of technology that’s already starting to show up in the marketplace: totally transparent planes. That’s right: all window, no body. “Either the entire fuselage will be transparent, with paint covering the areas where you don’t want windows, or every surface will double as a display screen,” Tillotson said of a plan to improve passenger visibility. Why bother? “This will also make it easier for airplane maintenance crew,” Tillotson explained. “If the guys who maintain airplanes are still human—and there should be some of those left in 100 years—they will have a much easier time figuring out where problems exist.”
No More Mechanical Delays… Ever
“I anticipate airplanes of the future to have nervous systems,” Bowcutt said. “They’ll know not only when things are broken, but when parts are starting to decay or break down.” With connected systems, airplanes will be able to communicate directly with maintenance personnel before problems occur, improving safety, reducing costs, and eliminating those pesky mechanical delays. “Hopefully it’ll communicate in a cranky voice!” jokes Tillotson.
No More Turbulence… Ever
You might soon say goodbye to the worst part of air travel: turbulence. “We are already working on some stuff that will let us look at air patterns 100 miles ahead,” Tillotson said about a system that will help pilots divert from choppy conditions. “Allowing for regulatory approval, this might be about 20 years away,” he said, explaining that the Boeing 787 already has features to dampen the movement of turbulence and help prevent air sickness.
You’ll Fly Way Faster
Supersonic planes are already in development by startups like Boom, and a company called Aerion is on the brink of debuting Mach 1.4 planes that will shave six hours off a trans-Pacific flight. For its part, Boeing is pushing even further. Said Bowcutt, “In 100 years, you’ll be traveling at Mach 5 speeds—that’s five times the speed of sound.” Hello, international day trips.
You’ll Fly Way Higher
“At Mach 5 speeds, aircraft would fly at 100,000 feet and might even pop out of the atmosphere for a bit,” Bowcutt said. “You’ll see the curvature of the earth and space popping out in front of you.”
You’ll Lose Weight By Flying
According to Tillotson, you’d actually lose up to ten percent of your body weight in-flight thanks to the high speeds of future planes—but you’d regain it the second you touched ground. “Folks might look forward to that,” he joked.
Summiting Everest Will Become A Simple Excursion
Tillotson said that vertical lift—being able to take off without a runway, as helicopters do—is on the verge of becoming reality. When that happens, he said, “you’ll be able to fly into dangerous or uncomfortable places that weren’t previously accessible by plane, or that require major expeditions. Mountains, jungles, and other pristine locations could become available for quick excursions.”
Planes Greener Than a Prius
Much of the technology in development helps planes go further faster. But what about cross-country and regional flights? Said Tillotson: “There will still be planes making the hop from Seattle to Los Angeles, and those will be a lot quieter, more efficient, with long, thin wings that might be powered primarily by electricity. Even the way you dispose of the aircraft at the end of its lifespan will be green.” Added Bowcutt: “Even though solar planes have their limitations, you could conceivably have power beamed on board from space—if you could build space solar power satellites, planes wouldn’t need batteries at all.”
Space Travel Will Be A Thing
“Of course some companies are already looking at space tourism,” conceded Tillotson. “Boeing expects to be a part of that business. You might see something that looks like an airplane heading to the moon or even further out. We expect to have business travelers making the trip at first, but further down the line, we’ll see grandparents visiting their grandchildren,” he said.
Interplanetary Flights Will Have Layovers in Low Orbit
“Since the 1980s, the U.S. has been developing technology to enable sustained hypersonic flight,” Bowcutt explained. This, he said, could lead to a situation where you would take one plane to low earth orbit and the other to the moon or Mars—the two planes could be mounted one on top of the other. In other words: interplanetary travel will require you to take a low orbit layover.