For decades, the vision of future air travel was this: sleek aircraft flying at ever faster speeds, and pilots and their passengers hopping blithely from one continent to the next.
The plane that came closest to fulfilling that vision was the supersonic Concorde - until an Air France Concorde crashed outside Paris in July, killing all 109 passengers and crew members. The Concorde, which was supplied at no charge to Air France and British Airways, had always struggled to make a profit. And it might become simply a footnote in aviation history.
"There is no present nor is there a future for supersonic travel," says Darryl Jenkins, director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University. "In economic terms, there was never any justification for the Concorde."
In blueprints for future aircraft, speed is secondary to size - reflecting a new emphasis on luxury for passengers aboard a future generation of large aircraft, and on convenience for those patronizing a new generation of smaller planes. On the horizon are super-jumbo planes - the largest and most expensive in history - able to carry more passengers more economically and reduce airspace congestion, say their advocates. Smaller aircraft, meanwhile, will bring new routes to smaller airports.
The most radical design comes from the European consortium Airbus - its 550-seat A380. Not since white-jacketed stewards served three-course lunches on the Pan Am Clippers of the 1950s have airplanes offered such luxuries. Airbus says airlines can outfit the double-decker, $230 million A380 with such amenities as sleeping berths, gym, library, nursery, shops and cocktail lounges.
Larger than any passenger jet now flying, the A380 would use 13 percent less fuel per seat than a Boeing 747 and be capable of flying 10,000 miles nonstop - 2,600 miles beyond existing long-range jets. Airbus recently took its 50th order for the plane, the threshold needed to begin manufacturing. But the A380's size could require airports to expand taxiways and waiting areas for passengers.
Britain's Virgin Atlantic Airways intends to fly the planes between London, New York and Los Angeles. Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Air France have placed orders. FedEx Corp. is the first American company to order the plane, notifying Airbus of its intention to acquire 10 of them.
Airbus attracted attention at Britain's Farnborough International Air Show last summer by announcing the first orders for the plane, upstaging Boeing's proposed new stretch jet, a modified version of the venerable 747 that would seat 522 passengers.
"Airbus is a fine company and they make a fine product, and they have provided very strong competition to Boeing," says Jenkins of George Washington University. "Certainly, it's a very, very big gamble. It will be interesting to sit back and watch that one."
Boeing is beginning the design of an 800-seat "flying wing" aircraft, one resembling the B-2 Stealth bomber, or a large flying stingray, as reported last week by the Los Angeles Times. The aircraft, which is at least a decade from production, would be in the shape of a wing, without a distinct fuselage or a conventional tail.
At the other extreme is a trend toward scaled-down "regional" jets with as few as 30 to 50 seats. These aircraft had a limited presence five years ago, but they are linking an increasing number of small cities with major hubs, or small cities with other small cities, creating new routes to places such as Knoxville, Tenn., Cincinnati and Richmond, Va. The planes can fly the same distance and at the same speed as 150-seat passenger jets.
"In the same hour and a half that a turboprop would fly 350 miles, the regional jets can fly much farther and pull in passengers from a wider area," says Kenneth Swartz of Bombardier Aerospace Regional aircraft, manufacturer of many of the regional jets in service in North America. It means that instead of once-a-day service on some routes, airlines can offer three flights a day. (Regional jet service at Richmond's airport grew from two flights in 1999 to 30 flights a year later.)
"Suddenly, it meant people there had access to two or three New York area airports, and others as far away as Cincinnati and Chicago," says Swartz. Increasingly, direct or one-stop trips are available, and it takes less time for passengers to get on and off the plane, he says.
The creation of new markets feeding hubs means more traffic for the major carriers, too. Airlines also like the small planes because they can fill them with passengers paying top dollar. There is rarely sufficient demand to fill standard jetliners at top ticket prices, and airlines usually lure additional passengers by offering discounts.
"Generally, airlines, because of risk aversion, like smaller planes," Jenkins says. "In an economic downturn, they usually have to give away the back third of the larger planes to fill them. This way they lose less money."