Jet set for the real future of air travel

Putting fantasies aside, Craig Platt takes a realistic view of what the future of air travel holds.

While some may cast their eyes on the distant future, when technologies like that of scramjets or Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne could get travellers from Sydney to London in less than five hours, the real future of air travel is already taking off.

So, putting aside fantasies of giant airships, see-through fuselages or hypersonic jets, let's take a look at what the near-future holds for air travellers and the aircraft we'll actually be flying on board.

Here are the aircraft of the future, coming soon to a terminal near you.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Video: Dreamliner's dreamy interior

It's been hailed as a revolution in air travel and, to a large degree, it is. The first airliner to be made of carbon fibre, not aluminium, the Dreamliner promises more fuel efficiency – a saving of 20 per cent - which is the big selling point for airlines. It also offers 20 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than comparable aircraft.

It promises a better experience for passengers too. The cabin air is, unlike other aircraft, drawn directly from outside, rather than through the engines, meaning it is fresher. It's also more humid and pressurised at a lower level – the end result being that passengers will feel better at the end of their flights. Add in larger windows and a more spacious cabin and the Dreamliner starts looking like an attractive option when choosing which airline to fly with.

After three years of delays the first 787 took off in October last year with launch customer All Nippon Airways. Boeing has 821 orders for Dreamliner from airlines around the world, including 50 from Qantas.


When can I fly in one? Now, but only with ANA in Japan. Qantas is likely to get its first Dreamliners in early 2013, but these first deliveries will be assigned to Jetstar.

The Boeing 747-8 jumbo jet

Video: The 747-8 jumbo takes flight

The largest airliner ever built by Boeing, the 747-8 is an extended version of the jumbo, capable of carrying 467 passengers in a three-class configuration. It's the longest airliner in the sky at 76.4 metres, 5.8 metres longer than its predecessor. The new jumbo goes head-to-head with Airbus's A380 – the double-decker superjumbo able to carry about 525 passengers.

The Boeing 747 jumbo jet is an iconic aircraft, making its first appearance in 1968. The 747-8's predecessor, the 747-400 is flown by dozens of airlines around the world including Qantas, which has 27.

So far, Lufthansa is the biggest customer for the 747-8 with 20 on order. The cargo version of the jet has proven popular with freight companies, with 70 ordered to date.

When can I fly in one? The first 747-8 has been delivered to an unnamed VIP customer who will use it as a private plane. Lufthansa is scheduled to receive its first 747-8 early this year, but its route has not yet been announced so you might need to take a trip to Frankfurt in order to get on board.

The Airbus A380 superjumbo

The Airbus A380 superjumbo is the world’s largest passenger aircraft.Photo: AP

If you've taken many long-haul international flights in the last couple of years, chances are you've experienced the A380 superjumbo already. Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Lufthansa, Air France, Korean Air and China Southern are all currently flying the world's largest airliner.

The enormous double-decker jet can carry about 525 passengers in a three-class configuration. It's estimated that the superjumbo could carry as many as 840 passengers in an all-economy fit-out – something Reunion-based carrier Air Austral has expressed an interest in doing.

Currently the number of seats vary by airline from Korean Air's 407 to Air France's 538.

Airlines have used the size of the A380 to push luxury in the skies to the limit. Singapore Airlines offers private suites, almost entirely enclosed, for passengers travelling in first class – including seats that convert to double beds for couples. Meanwhile Emirates offers the only opportunity to get naked in the sky legally – its A380s' first-class cabins feature bathrooms with showers.

Emirates is the biggest customer for the A380, with 17 currently in its fleet and a total order of 90.

When can I fly in one? Now. Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Emirates all fly A380s on international routes out of Sydney and Melbourne.

The Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX

The Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737 MAX are going head-to-head in the battle to rule the narrow-body aircraft market.

Why create an entirely new aircraft design when you can just stick a new engine on the old one? That's the question Airbus asked themselves before launching the A320neo ('neo' for 'new engine option'). The single-aisle A320 is the world's best-selling aircraft, so rather than mess with it, the company decided to modernise the plane by offering it with a new, more efficient engine.

The success of the A320neo – 1200 orders since Airbus announced it – led to Boeing responding with its own revamped workhorse, the 737 MAX. Both companies are battling it out for a majority share of the $1 trillion narrow-body aircraft market. There are currently more than 4800 Airbus A320s and more than 5400 Boeing 737s in service.

The 737 MAX, with its new engines, promises to reduce fuel burn and carbon dioxide emissions by 10 to 12 per cent, while Airbus claims its A320neo will offers a 15 per cent reduction.

Full specifications for the aircraft are yet to be revealed but, given the key change for both is the engines, passengers may not notice much difference from the A320s and 737s currently flying.

When can I fly in one? The A320neo is due to be delivered in 2015. AirAsia, which flies into Australia, is the biggest customer for the plane with 200 ordered. The first Boeing 737 MAX is due to enter service in 2016. Indonesia's Lion Air is the aircraft's biggest customer, with 201 on order.

China's C919

China's C919 is still a few years away from entering productionPhoto: AFP

When it comes to commercial aircraft manufacturing, China lags far behind France (the home of Airbus) and the US (the home of Boeing). But that's all about to change.

China has signalled that it intends to change the global aviation industry with its own home-grown airliners.

The first, the C919, is being built by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China and 100 have already been ordered from customers including Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern, and the aircraft leasing company GE Capital Aviation Services of the US. European budget carrier Ryanair has also expressed interest.

The single-aisle, 156-seat C919 is China's second airliner, after the ARJ21, and is scheduled to enter production by 2016. Once China puts the full force of its manpower behind production, expect to see Chinese airliners taking off at an airport near you. Now all they need is a bit of help with creating more marketable names for the jet.

When can I fly in one? Not until 2016 at the earliest and if China follows the precedents set by Boeing and Airbus for new aircraft, expect the actual date to be a year or two after that.

Sukhoi's Superjet

Armavia is the first airline to receive a Superjet.Photo: AFP

China's C919 may not be a cool name, but a catchy name is one thing the Russians don't need help with. After years of criticism over the safety standards of their home-grown jets, the Russians are hoping Sukhoi – the manufacturer responsible for some of the deadliest Soviet-era fighter jets – can help restore pride to Russian aviation with its first modern commercial airliner, the Superjet 100.

The Superjet is small – 98 seats – and designed not to compete with the giants Boeing and Airbus, but with the manufacturers of smaller jets like Canada's Bombardier and Brazil's Embraer. The first Superjet was delivered in April this year to Armenia's Armavia. Russia's Aeroflot is the biggest customer for the plane so far with 40 to be delivered by 2016.

When can I fly one? Now, but only in Armenia.