New Types of Airplanes

26 August 2008 at 17:26 | Posted in Airline Innovation, Airliners, Airlines, Budget Airlines, Innovations, Interior Design, Travel | Leave a comment
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[Category: Innovations. If you are new to my blog please read the “About itimes3” page first]

The concept of the modern jet airliner was probably invented sometime in the 1950’s, when the Boeing 707 was introduced. If you look at any other planes that hit the market since then, not much has changed. All planes look roughly the same, and operate in the same way. Sure, the Boeing 747 has a partial top deck, and the Airbus A380 has a full one, but it is still a round tube on the outside with rows of seats on the inside, and things all operate the same.

The look and feel of airliners did not change. And neither did the way we travel – this was introduced in the 1920’s or 1930’s, obviously based on the configuration of trains, trams and buses: sitting behind each other in neat rows, with seats close together to use the floor space in the most economical manner possible.

With the rise of passenger numbers world-wide, and the increasing importance of air travel globally, it seems amazing that the airline industry has not come up with better ways to travel halfway around the world than sitting in a seat for 16 hours or so, watching the back of another seat (at least, in economy class).

Perhaps it is not really surprising, as there are only two big players in the market (Airbus and Boeing) and so effective competition and innovation is perhaps less than what it would be if there were say 20 major aircraft manufacturers.

Yet it is time that we start thinking beyond the same old concept, in order to make air travel more comfortable in the long term, increase its attractiveness, even for economy passengers.

Seats in planes are close together because that way the airline gets best return on the available space. But seats are not comfortable on longer trips, and reclining them is not an option as it intrudes on co-passengers space, in the current configuration of the typical airliner.

So let’s say we have the same space, but we want to use it in a way to allow more space to recline, even lay down. To start with, we can make some observations:

If you have ever travelled in a Boeing 747-100 (the first series; the last ones were taken out of service with most airlines around 10 years ago I think), you probably remember the magnificent “headroom” this plane had. The ceiling was very high and it gave an enormous impression of space.

Later models of the Boeing 747 (such as the 300 and the 400) have much less headroom. The space above was closed off, possibly to reduce the air-conditioning required or for similar reasons. However the space is still there.

There are other planes with a lot of headroom, such as the Airbus Beluga (which follows the same design concept as the Aero Spacelines “Super Guppy” that preceded it).

So – if planes were designed not with a floor in the middle of a round tube, but more creatively, taller, with different floors, even partial ones, that could have innovatively designed, light-weight “beds” stacked above each other, or seats that would tilt people back to a degree allowing for more space.

In some cities in the world (notably in Japan) cars are stacked in car parkings. A similar concept could be used in planes, where passengers could be stacked in fully reclining seats – for example, if someone wanted to recline, the seat would be lifted off the floor into the air, reclined, and stacked there. Up to three levels of stacking could be realistic, depending on the type of plane, its shape and the row configuration.

Obviously research would need to be done into the best combination of shape (of the plane) and ways to use the internal space. But I believe there is room for significant creativity, which will pay off because air travel is so massive now, and will become bigger still.

Other design concepts could be studied too, such as catamaran-type planes (with two or more connected hulls) which would allow for more design options, delta-wings or concepts derived from military designs such as the B2 bomber, which would allow odd-shaped aircraft to fly reliably.

The question remains: are current airliners of the best possible design, or can this be improved, particularly to improve passenger comfort and options on long-haul flights, without increasing manufacturing and fit-out cost of the plane to a significant degree? It won’t be simple and will be a big change, but it will need to be done to further improve the quality and value proposition of air travel during this century.

If you like this idea and you work in a type of industry where this is relevant, I would be happy to discuss in more detail, answer questions or assist in other ways. For details and contact information please see the “About itimes3” page.

George Spark

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