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Special Report

The Next Jet Set

By Jim Stallard

What will commercial air travel be like over the next 10-15 years? Despite sci-fi visions of supersonic jets spanning the Pacific in four hours, the biggest near-term changes appear not to be faster planes, but planes that are more efficient. This evolution is being driven by the issues consumers seem to care about the most -- low costs and more direct flights.

Thanks to a drop in ticket prices that began in the 1970s, air travel has transformed from an upper class luxury into a lifestyle necessity. Today, 80 percent of Americans older than 20 have taken at least one airplane trip, and flying is regarded as a routine mode of transport rather than a special occasion. Notwithstanding the safety fears brought on by September 11 and the recent economic slump, analysts predict that even more people will be taking to the skies in the next few decades as the relative costs of flying continue to decline.

The Next Generation
Despite this democratization of air travel, the near future of commercial aviation will continue to be shaped by just two manufacturers -- Airbus Industries and The Boeing Company. Each is preparing to launch a highly publicized aircraft, aimed at a specific market niche, that will greatly influence the airline industry.

The A380
For Airbus, a conglomerate of European manufacturers from Britain, Germany, France, and Spain, the new release is the A380, a massive, double-decker "superjumbo" that can carry about 550 passengers. Scheduled to take its first flight in 2006, the A380 is poised to replace the Boeing 747 as the world's largest commercial jet, providing 49 percent more floor space and 35 percent more seats. The size of the plane, combined with innovations that lighten its load and improve its aerodynamic performance, should make it possible for Airbus to offer lower ticket costs. And the extra space has led some airlines to request special on-board features, including a children's play area, a gym, a bar, shops, and even a mini casino.

One way Airbus will reduce weight on the A380 is by incorporating "composite materials," such as carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP), into much of the plane's structure. CFRP is lighter than the conventional aluminum alloys, and Airbus already uses it on some of its existing aircraft. Another new material called GLARE will be used for the upper fuselage, the airplane's main body. GLARE consists of two layers of aluminum sandwiched around a thin layer of strong glass fibers. In addition to being lighter than conventional aluminum sheets, GLARE is better at resisting fire and less sensitive to metal fatigue, weakening and breakdown of metal under repeated strain that can lead to catastrophic crashes. All told, Airbus estimates that the innovations will allow the A380 to weigh in at 240 tons -- about 15 tons lighter than if it had been constructed using traditional materials and methods -- only slightly heavier than the smaller 747.

Will passengers take to the A380? Undoubtedly its status as the biggest commercial airliner in history may attract crowds for a while, and if ticket prices remain low, it could make the A380 a popular choice for long, intercontinental flights. However, some flight and travel analysts see drawbacks to the A380's large size. How long will it take to screen and board more than 500 people? Will it be difficult to increase the amount of food for serving, or the number of restrooms? Perhaps the biggest potential problem is the prospect of stranding that many passengers if a flight gets canceled or diverted.

The 7E7 Dreamliner
Boeing's answer to the A380 is the 7E7 Dreamliner, an airplane developed with a focus on efficiency, and on Boeing's belief that future demand will be for medium-sized jets for point-to-point travel, rather than for giant, high-capacity airliners. Boeing has been losing a significant share of the commercial airliner market to Airbus in recent years, so the Dreamliner could represent Boeing's last chance to recover lost ground and remain in the business. The 7E7 will accommodate 200-300 passengers if the plane is divided into three classes (coach, business, and first-class) and more than 350 if one class is used. Although not nearly as large as the A380, the 7E7 will be able to travel as far as bigger jets, allowing for more direct flights between far-flung cities.

The Dreamliner is scheduled to fly in 2008. Boeing says that because it will be built with lighter, composite materials, the 7E7 will use 20 percent less fuel than other planes of similar size. "The primary material is a carbon laminate that is already in wide use in aerospace," says Walt Gillette, vice president of Engineering, Manufacturing and Partner Alignment for the 7E7. "It is lighter and it is stronger. In addition, composites are not prone to corrosion like the aluminum materials that are used for most airplane structure today."

The design team is also looking into technology that would enable the plane to self-diagnose problems and call ahead for parts or maintenance at the next airport. In its marketing effort, Boeing is emphasizing the passenger-pleasing features of the 7E7's interior, with spacious seating, high-speed Internet and e-mail access, and higher humidity to increase cabin comfort.

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20 Aviation Disasters

Risk has always been a necessary part of aviation development. The first fatality of powered flight, Lt. Thomas E. Selfridge, was a passenger flying with Orville Wright in 1908. Selfridge fractured his skull while demonstrating Wright's airplane for the U.S. Army. Orville broke his leg and fractured several ribs in the crash. Today, aviation has eliminated much of the risk, but accidents still occur. Here is a chronicle of fatal airline accidents.

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