The Shape Of Wings To Come

Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for take-off in the new generation of jets

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Aerion Mach 1.5 executive jet (Aerion AS2). Photograph courtesy of Aerion Corporation

Last year, I flew around the world from London, to the Gulf, to Singapore, to Australia, to LA and back to London – 26,000 miles in four days. In first class. I rack up several hundred thousand miles a year, with air miles to match. Cabin crew recognise me. Pilots email me. I know the best seats in pretty much every plane. I can tell the difference between a Boeing 777 and a 787 from miles away. Yes, I’m a plane spotter.

My wingy, worldly affair started long ago on a flight to Miami. It was those white gloves, electric-blue skirts and jaunty pillbox hats that did it. When PanAm nose-dived into bankruptcy, Virgin became my new love. I was one of the first on VS1 from Heathrow to New York when they served – heavens above! – ice cream at 39,000ft. One day in 2002, I boarded Concorde to New York. I still have the pale blue Smythson diary the captain gave me and my silver ticket stub. Price of the trip: £8,275.90 (£12,000 in today’s money).

Since the supersonic time machine dipped its beak for the last time, it has been a turbulent time for the get-there-fast-and-ritzy class – and lucky upgraders. First class almost died during the financial crisis because no one wanted to be seen sitting in splendour, even if they could still afford it. Fast forward seven years, though, and we’re entering a new era of luxury aviation.

As distances get bigger, planes are, oddly, getting smaller

Concorde may no longer be roaring, but the dream of supersonic aviation is being revived by Sir Richard Branson and some of the biggest names in aviation, including Nasa and Lockheed Martin, are pioneering new supersonic jets.

Large commercial airliners are changing, too, with cleaner, more refreshing and moist air, higher air pressure and, for the fortunate few, showers. They’re also changing the world. Shrinking it, to be precise. Buckle up and make sure you have plenty of reading material, because the long-haul flight is about to go even further.

The 280-odd passengers on Emirates flight EK449 from Auckland to Dubai have time to watch eight movies back to back and enjoy numerous in-flight meals before the non-stop service arrives 17 hours and 15 minutes after taking off. It takes 17 hours to get from Dallas to Sydney on Qantas or to travel on United or Singapore Airlines from San Francisco to Singapore. British Airways has just launched its longest flight – from London to Santiago, Chile – which takes 14 hours and 40 minutes.

Concorde may no longer be roaring, but the dream of supersonic aviation is being revived by Sir Richard Branson

You might think this new age of the long-haul flight is the result of the four-engine A380 superjumbo that has overtaken the Boeing 747 to become the biggest plane in the sky. But as distances get bigger, planes are, oddly, getting smaller. It is three single-decker, twin-engine aircraft – the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Boeing 777 ER and Airbus A350 and their ultra-long-haul variants – that are taking us further.

Airlines love the 787 and the A350 because they are light. They’re made of carbon fibre, not metal, which makes them the most fuel-efficient large passenger aircraft. As fuel accounts for half of airlines’ costs, the saving per hour is colossal. “The technology is now there to do these ultra-long-haul flights more efficiently, so airlines are looking at where it makes sense to operate them,” says Mr John Strickland, an aviation analyst and founder of UK-based JLS Consulting.

Airlines are less keen on the A380. In fact, only a decade after its launch, it is facing a crisis. Only one airline, Emirates, the world’s super-connector, is ordering it in large numbers and even its orders are slowing down. No US carrier has bought a single A380. Airbus has delivered 200 superjumbos – it had hoped airlines would buy more than 1,000 over two decades – and has fewer than 150 on its order book, to be built over the next five years.

So what does the new era of flying look like? It’s time to grab your passport and find out.

AIRBUS A350-900ULR AND BOEING 777-8/9

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Boeing 777-8. Photograph courtesy of Boeing

These three large, yet light and super-fuel-efficient aircraft can fly for almost 20 hours non-stop. With a maximum capacity of 165,000 litres of fuel, the new Airbus will have a range of more than 10,000 miles – more than any other airliner flying today. Qantas wants to use the Boeing to launch nonstop flights between Australia and Europe, including a recently announced Perth-to-London route, due to run from March 2018. Singapore Airlines has announced plans to use the Airbus to fly direct from Singapore to New York, starting in 2018. The flight will take about 19 hours, cover 9,522 miles, and snatch the record for the longest non-stop flight. Emirates says it will be able to fly even longer ranges when its first Boeing 777-8 arrives in 2020. This could allow the airline to extend non-stop flights from Dubai to destinations such as Lima in Peru, Mexico City and Santiago in Chile.

ROYAL JET BBJ A6-RJV

Royal Jet BBJ A6-RJV. Photograph courtesy of Royal Jet

Royal Jet BBJ A6-RJV. Photograph courtesy of Royal Jet

This jet, owned and operated by the Middle East’s leading private jet operator, which is based in Abu Dhabi and maintains the UAE’s presidential fleet, can fly a party of 34 to London for about £120,000 return, rather less than the cost of flying the same group in premium class on a scheduled flight. Plus, you get all the advantages of customised travel to smaller airfields, with rapid VIP transit facilities and the opportunity to choose your own flight times. The Edese Doret-designed interior boasts a bedroom with en suite bathroom, but no shower. Then there are eight first-class, lie-flat seats, eight business-class seats and a separate section at the back with 18 economy seats. Large conference or dining tables, with forward- and backward-facing seats, divide the front cabin. The LED mood lighting is controlled from an iPad. Eliminating the overhead luggage bins creates a more spacious cabin than a normal Boeing 737. It is the first business jet in the world to be equipped with high-speed broadband Wi-Fi to allow live TV and Netflix streaming.

AERION MACH 1.5

Aerion Mach 1.5 executive jet (Aerion AS2). Photograph courtesy of Aerion Corporation

Aerion Mach 1.5 executive jet (Aerion AS2). Photograph courtesy of Aerion Corporation

A group of engineers at Nasa, the US aeronautics agency, think they have found a way to build a successor to Concorde that can fly over land because its sonic boom can be muffled. The engineers, working with Lockheed Martin, hope the small “low-boom” aircraft will be ready for test flights in 2019. By tweaking the design of the fuselage, they believe they can smooth out the sound waves of a sonic boom to reduce it from a window-threatening pulse to a dull thump. The new design is for a single-seat, single-engine super-aerodynamic jet, with a long and slender triangular nose and engine intakes sculpted into the upper wing. To reduce noise, the aircraft will fly 100mph slower than Concorde, which had a cruising speed of 1,350mph. If it proves successful, the new technology could pave the way for small, commercial supersonic business jets. A number of groups are planning such aircraft. Among them is Aerion, based in Nevada, which is developing a Mach 1.5 executive jet called the AS2, in a joint venture with Airbus. It could come to market as soon as 2024.

AIRLANDER

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Airlander. Photograph courtesy of Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd

The world’s longest aircraft – 92m long, 43.5m wide and 26m high – could mark the return of commercial airship flights. It doesn’t need a runway to take off and land and can cruise silently in any direction at speeds of up to 93mph. It can stay aloft for five days with a crew, and almost three weeks without. The superstructure is built from the same carbon fibre that is used to make Formula 1 cars and the helium-filled balloon is the same super-strong fabric that’s used for the sails on America’s Cup yachts. “The new materials mean we can fly lighter, faster and safer than people dreamt of even a decade ago,” says Mr Chris Daniels, head of communications at the Bedfordshire, England, firm, Hybrid Air Vehicles, that builds it. It underwent test flights earlier this year, which went well, even if one of the landings was a little bumpy. Chief test pilot Mr David Burns says he is looking forward to cruising to Kenya and sweeping down over herds of wildebeest on the ultimate airborne safari before coming in to land in Nairobi.

BOOM XB-1

Boom (front) and the XB-1 (back). Photograph courtesy of Boom Technology, Inc

Boom (front) and the XB-1 (back). Photograph courtesy of Boom Technology, Inc

Created by aerospace company Boom, and backed by Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, the “Baby Boom” jet is designed to fly at 1,450mph, about 100mph faster than Concorde. The first demo plane is due to take off on its first test flight in late 2017 and, if it proves safe and commercially viable, it could soon take passengers from London to New York in three-and-a-half hours. Mr Blake Scholl, a former Amazon executive and CEO and founder of Boom, says that “60 years after the dawn of the jet age, we’re still flying at 1960s speeds. Concorde’s designers didn’t have the technology for affordable supersonic travel, but now we do.” Boom’s designers say the XB-1 is quieter and 30 per cent more fuel efficient than Concorde. The cabin will be split into two single-seat rows, so everybody has a window and an aisle. To cut flight time, it will cruise at 60,000ft, from which height lucky passengers will be able to see the curve of the Earth’s surface. There are more than 500 possible routes for the new plane, including a five-hour trip from San Francisco to Tokyo and a six-hour flight from LA to Sydney.