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Future takes flight with Boeing, Airbus jets

Planes loaded with features, but offer competing visions of air travel
An undated handout picture shows Boeing'
While not as large as the Airbus A380, the Boeing 787 could usher in big changes in air travel.Boeing via AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Special to

You may not notice it at the check-in counter just yet, but the air-travel industry is on the edge of a new era. Rising fuel costs, shrinking service, and a severely stressed air-traffic system have all contributed to a growing consensus that there has to be a better way. From super-sized 787s and Airbus A380s to the latest, lightest microjets, that better way is on its way to reality.

Eighty feet high, 240 feet long, and 260 feet from wingtip to wingtip -- it’s hard to miss the Airbus A380, especially given the two rows of windows that run the length of the fuselage. Like an airborne double-decker bus, this superjumbo jet will offer 50 percent more floor space than a Boeing 747. It will also carry 550–850 passengers (depending on model and configuration), making it the biggest passenger plane ever built.

And, perhaps, one of the poshest. With early orders already placed by the likes of Singapore, Qantas, and Emirates airlines, don’t be surprised if you find yourself flying on a plane with a cocktail lounge, fitness center, or fully stocked duty-free shop. Fly one of the A380s ordered by Virgin Atlantic Airways and you may even be able to play poker or roulette in an onboard casino.

Then there are those must-have amenities that currently exist in mock-ups and digital media. Lobby-like lounges with sofas and big-screen TVs. Conference rooms with AV equipment and high-speed Internet. Open the sliding doors to your private suite and you may find a living room, separate bedroom, and shower-equipped bath. Alas, reserving one with frequent flyer miles probably won’t be an option.

The above amenities, of course, are speculative, and there’s no telling yet which airlines will offer what or when. Complicating matters further, in June 2006, Airbus announced a second six-month production delay, putting the plane a year behind schedule and raising questions about its overall delivery schedule.

But the A380’s colossal capacity is the real deal. Flying at almost 650 mph and boasting an 8,000-mile range, the plane can conceivably fly non-stop from New York to Tokyo or Paris to Hong Kong.

Meanwhile the folks at Boeing are taking a different approach with the 787, the company’s first all-new passenger plane since the first 777 rolled down the tarmac in 1994. Also known as the Dreamliner, the plane represents the culmination of a half-decade of development, 800,000 hours of supercomputer design work, and the efforts of workers from Everett, Wash., to Nagoya, Japan.

Instead of focusing on maximizing capacity a la the A380, the 787 will carry 210–330 passengers (depending on model and configuration) in cabins with arched ceilings and pod-like seats. Other passenger amenities may include “electrochromatic” windows that can be dimmed at the touch of a button, and a color-changing, LED-based lighting system that can be adjusted to fit different moods or times of day. Settle into your seat and relax as the “sky” overhead cycles from daytime to night.

Creature comforts aside, the 787 is designed to provide something else -- an alternative approach to the old “hub and spoke” system of air travel. You know, the one on the map in the in-flight magazine that looks like a family of spiders went a little crazy with the silk. Boston to Denver to San Francisco. LAX to JFK with a quick inter-terminal sprint through DFW. Seattle to St. Louis to Atlanta to … sorry, where were we heading again? No wonder so many travelers feel they’re entangled in a web of endless layovers and connecting flights.

It also explains why more airlines are offering more nonstop flights between more cities all the time. Forgoing hubs and spokes, the new air-travel system is called “point-to-point” or “city-pair” service, and today’s fuel-efficient planes are linking cities that have never been directly connected before. Assuming that trend continues, the 787 may turn out to be a “dreamliner” for all concerned.

Alas, you can’t book your dream flight just yet. Although 30 airlines have already ordered more than 350 787s (as of July 2006), the first one -- for All Nippon Airways -- isn’t expected to board passengers until sometime in 2008. Meanwhile, despite the production delays, Airbus still hopes to deliver its first A380 to Singapore Airlines by the end of this year.

In the meantime, rest assured that the airline industry will continue pursuing the next big idea. Some, such as flying cars and airplane/helicopter hybrids, are still little more than dreams, while others, including so-called air taxis and microjets, may already be boarding at your local airport. But that’s a story for another column.