As the travel industry creeps back to life, the planes of the future are up in the air

When it comes to long-haul travel, does size matter?European aircraft manufacturer Airbus believes it does. That's why, despite deepening losses in 2001, the company still plans to build the three-story, 555-passenger, super-duper jumbo jet known as the A380."We realize the industry is in a slump, but we can't afford to think in the short term," says Airbus spokesman David Venz. "By the time the A380 enters service, travel will be back on top."

Airbus started production on the A380 in mid-January in Nantes, France; the first plane is set to take off in 2006 as part of Singapore Airlines' fleet. Slightly wider than the Boeing 747, it will carry 135 more passengers in roomier seats, and will have a lower deck that can be outfitted with lounges, restaurants, bedrooms, or almost any amenity an inventive airline requests. Even with softening demand, increased security concerns, and industry-wide aircraft deferrals, seven airlines have already placed orders for the $250 million craft; some, like Lufthansa, did so after September 11.

Boeing, also suffering a drop in sales and profits, is forging ahead with its 250-seat Sonic Cruiser, set to debut in 2008. Although critics say its fares will be prohibitively expensive for all but the most prodigal business travelers, Boeing is bullish on the plane's future. With a top speed of Mach 0.98—just below the sound barrier—the Sonic Cruiser is slower than the Concorde, but will be quieter and more fuel-efficient, which means it can fly longer routes and, eventually, tickets will cost less. As a result, a flight from New York to Tokyo could be nearly two hours shorter on the Sonic Cruiser than on the A380 or any other conventional jet. The same goes for Los Angeles—Sydney and Chicago—Beijing. Of course, it won't come close to beating the Concorde's record of four hours on the lucrative London—New York route. But by the time the Cruiser premieres, the aging fleet of Concordes will be approaching retirement.

British Airways, for one, will need a replacement. Yet airline spokesman John Lampl says that for now, the Sonic Cruiser won't be it: "Whatever takes the place of the Concorde will have to be just as fast, carry twice as many people, and have a longer range." That means the real plane of the future may still be on the drawing boards. —Paula Szuchman

Wings of Desire

Want to fly in a business jet?There are plenty of new options—for a price

Frustrated by schedule cutbacks and earlier check-in times, many travelers are seeking alternatives to flying commercial, and the business-jet industry is providing them. What price freedom?For starters, $679 gets you from Chicago to New York in an eight-seat jet on charter airline Indigo. Cough up $1,650 for an hour in a Learjet 35A with Air Royale International, which arranges charters on a network of 5,500 aircraft. If Blue Fox, a proposed all-business-class carrier, takes off, you could buy a London—New York round-trip for $1,700. A $100,000 eBizJets Travel Card gives you access to a 1,400-jet fleet; hourly rates (from $1,850) are debited from the card. Spend $109,000 for a 25-hour Private Jet Card from Marquis Jet Partners, a company that resells shares of NetJets, a fractional jet ownership company (like a time-share in the air); $767,350 buys a 1/16th share and 50 hours of flying time in a Citation V Ultra from NetJets itself. The same deal on a Beechjet 400A from Avolar, the fractional start-up launched by UAL, United Airlines' parent company, costs $770,650. And for $837,500, you can have a six-seat Eclipse 500 jet of your very own.—Stephen Whitlock