To get an idea of what might lie ahead for the airline industry—for customers and companies—Scientific American Custom Media asked experts and futurists around the world one question: How do you envision air travel changing in the next 100 years? We purposefully left this question as broad as possible to encourage people to think broadly and uniquely. Here’s what they said.

—The Editors

I envisage that airlines together with aircraft manufacturers will offer onboard features and lifestyle enjoyment that are non-existent or matchless on the ground. Every seat on board can become personal space with a high level of customization, enabling passengers to choose from a suite of services—for example, the level of connectivity or the amount of noise cancellation they wish to have—so much so that there will be total exclusivity within that private dome, further reducing the level of commoditization of air travel. Good customer service and support will continue to be vital, even if technology brings about more automation in air travel.

TaiLu Chew

Vice President, Product Innovation at Singapore Airlines

Environmental concerns will shape the future of air transportation. As awareness of global warming increases pressure will build to reduce green house gas emissions. This is a particular challenge for air transportation, which will rely on high energy density fossil fuels for long distance transportation. Biofuels will be a partial solution but aviation will have to compete with other energy users. This will drive improvements in fuel efficiency through improved aircraft technology and design as well as more efficient flight operations. While air transportation will be challenged it will also be critical to provide the international connections, which will allow a global response.

R. John Hansman

T. Wilson Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics
Director, MIT International Center for Air Transportation
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
United States

100 years from now, pilotless planes will be able to transport air passengers anywhere in the world in less than two hours. These planes will be made of super-strong, super-light materials made possible by new advances in nanotechnology and they will be powered almost entirely by solar energy. Historians will look back at today’s fledgling drones industry as the precursor of a new age in pilotless commercial aviation.

Dominic Basulto

Futurist and Blogger
New York, New York
United States

Since the first commercial flight took place in 1914 in the USA, when a two-seater plane carried a single passenger on the short journey from St. Petersburg to Tampa, air travel has transformed the global economy and the way we live. Over the coming decades, surging passenger numbers will drive the next phase in this revolution. Overall, passenger numbers are likely to double every fifteen years.

This rapid expansion will pose challenges. The world’s skies will become more congested, but some countries will struggle to build enough new airports and runways to relieve the pressure. One reason will be mounting public concern about the environment. Aerospace manufacturers will play a vital role in shaping this future. In the next decade and beyond, they will produce aircraft that are cleaner, quieter, more comfortable and able to carry a larger number of passengers, so easing congestion. These planes will become more fuel-efficient as airframes are made increasingly from lightweight composite materials.

Fabrice Brégier

CEO, Airbus
Toulouse, France

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