Paul Sillers asks aviation experts for their predictions on how flight will evolve over the next 100 years.
On 25 August 1919, British Airways’ forerunner company Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited inaugurated the world's first daily international scheduled air service from Hounslow Heath (a stone's throw from Heathrow) to Paris, carrying a single passenger, a consignment of leather, several brace of grouse and some jars of Devonshire cream. A hundred years on, air travel is no longer the prerogative of the privileged, it’s affordable and ubiquitous: every 90 seconds, a British Airways aircraft takes off to one of more than 200 destinations in 75 countries.
"If you think of the evolution that went on in the first 50 years of flight, it was absolutely phenomenal. We went from the Wright Brothers and their wooden plane to flying supersonic,” says Professor Iain Gray, Director of Aerospace, Cranfield University. "Then, if you look at the period between 1969, with the introduction of the Boeing 747 and Concorde and now, it's definitely been one of incremental evolutions. So, if you transport yourself another 100 years out, the key question is whether aviation is going to be just a further incremental development of what we've got today or something actually quite radical.”
Mainstream aircraft manufacturers, plus a whole bunch of startups (primarily in the flying taxi space), are already devising aviation's longer-term roadmaps. When Boeing reached its own centenary in 2016, it set up a new business division, Boeing NeXt, mandated to design the next-generation ecosystem of urban, regional and global aerial mobility.
"We started to think about aviation's next 100 years, and I truly believe that aviation will be used differently," says Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Boeing NeXt. "There are major reasons for that. Obviously, there's an exponential change in technology, in autonomy, cognitive computing, electrification of aircraft and lightweight materials. There are trends happening around megacities and urbanisation, therefore congestion becomes a challenge. The environment continues to be a challenge. Then there's a change in societal expectations – it's becoming more of an on-demand society where people expect things at a moment's notice, led by the advent of the smartphone.”
"The next chapter of mobility is where aviation plays a role. How do people and goods move differently around cities, regions and our planet than they do today? So, under that, and under the belief that the most valuable thing we have as a society is time, how do we focus on time savings? That's the umbrella that we're operating under and the problem we're trying to solve going forward with aviation in the next 100 years."
Boeing NeXt is currently prototyping a raft of technologies and vehicles to alleviate these issues, and has ambitions to bring hypersonic flight to market in what Nordlund describes as the "20 years and beyond" timeframe.
"If you're a business (Club World) traveller in New York, hypersonic flight can put you in Tokyo in two hours,” he says. “We still need to work through the economics and society acceptance but, from a technology standpoint, it's within our vision of becoming reality. As for space travel, we're working on rockets today at the Boeing Company that we believe will be the first rockets that take humans to Mars. So 100 years from now the sky's the limit, or the galaxy's the limit, because you could definitely foresee colonisation of other planets within the next century."
So, who knows where your British Airways ticket in 2119 might take you? Maybe to an asteroid mining expedition, or perhaps you'll prefer one of those short-haul flights to chill out over the weekend in your timeshare on the moon. And on board? Boeing NeXt's Nordlund says, "Along with the rest of our enterprise we're thinking about what the passenger experience will be. It really comes down to what the end consumer desires and what technologies allow you to bring. So really how the passenger 100 years from now flies through the sky is really open to anyone's imagination."