These New Planes Could Change the Way You Travel

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Move over Boeing 747 and Airbus A380. Goodbye, MD-80 and 757. As airlines speed up retirement of these long-running plane models (with a push from the COVID-19 pandemic), they’re making way for a new generation of jetliners to take center stage.

“Airlines will look at the world in a different light as the recovery develops,” says John Grant, London-based senior analyst at OAG, an airline research and publishing firm. “Network structures will change, and older aging aircraft types such as the 747 and A380 are vulnerable.” On the positive side, the latest machines can take us farther, faster, and move us in greater comfort than ever before, he says. They’ll also burn less fuel—a requirement of travel for more and more passengers.

That fits with changing travel patterns, says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, an aviation consultancy. “The pandemic is accelerating a pre-existing shift to point-to-point travel” with smaller planes connecting mid-sized cities, he says. “[The world] doesn’t need a 520-seat monster that forced people to change planes in Frankfurt or Narita,” he says.

Here are five of the new planes that will change the way we travel:

Boeing 777X

Expect to see it in: 2022

The buzz:  The biggest twin-jet in the world, it’s a worthy successor to the 747

With its scheduled 2020 rollout postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like the Boeing 777X was the victim of bad timing. But now the delay could be seen as a godsend. Lufthansa is set to launch the jet into service in 2022 , in time for travel to recover on the sorts of long-distance international routes for which it was designed.

Boeing’s newest souped-up version of the 777 can carry between 384 and 426 passengers in a multi-class layout—about the same as the 747. The standout feature is a unique folding wing that bends up at a right angle so the wide-body can scrunch into tight docking spaces at airports. The jet also has a slew of passenger-pleasing features, among them, a wider cabin, dimmable windows, and super-sized overhead bins, which will all be welcome, as the plane can fly with a full payload farther than either the 747 or A380.

In addition to the German flag carrier, the 777X has attracted a slew of marquee airline customers like Emirates, Singapore, and Qatar—good news for Boeing after a bruising year due to the prolonged 737 Max grounding, on top of the pandemic.

Airbus A321XLR

Expect to see it: 2023

The buzz: The longest range of any single-aisle plane

The hit of the 2019 Paris Air Show, Airbus’ A321 XLR will be able to fly around 4,700 nautical miles (or about 5,400 regular miles) without stopping. That’s about 1,000 miles more than the 737 and other narrow-body models can pull off. An innovative design that added a third fuel tank allows the XLR to travel up to 10 hours without needing to refuel—about double the duration most airlines associate with a smaller plane. With cutting-edge engines and other technological advances, the plane operates with a 30 percent reduction in fuel burn per seat, according to Airbus, putting it on a par with the most efficient wide-bodies.

Aer Lingus and Iberia—siblings in the International Airlines Group helmed by British Airways—are launch customers for the A321XLR, and they’re widely expected to use the plane on transatlantic flights to points on the East Coast from Dublin and Madrid. Other major orders were placed by American, with an eye to routes like Charlotte to Berlin or Philadelphia to Basel, and JetBlue, which is already planning its first transatlantic flight from the East Coast to London and could go farther into Europe. But how long will passengers tolerate sitting on a narrow-body plane? Airbus, for its part, is offering a suite of enhancements for what it calls “long-haul wide-body comfort,” with wider seats, larger overhead bins, and other creature comforts. 

A220-500

Expect to see it in: Second half of the 2020s

The buzz: Domestic flights that will get a lot comfier in coach

This proposed stretched version of the nimble Airbus A220 narrow-body plane, which is already in service with a smaller 100 model, would seat at least 150 passengers, putting it within striking distance of ground long claimed by the 737 and Airbus’ own A320 line. The existing A220s, which seat 110 passengers, are already redefining the in-flight experience on short-haul routes. With seats at least 18 inches wide and a two-by-three seating layout, it’s a far cry from usual single-aisle cattle car configuration of six seats abreast and seat width of 17 inches (although when it comes to legroom, that’s totally up to the airline). More windows—two at each row—and capacious overhead bins help to combat claustrophobia. The A220 also guzzles less fuel than earlier regional planes, meaning airlines will be more willing to take a gamble on new routes. And with longer range than the standard regional jet, there’s a possibility for short transatlantic hops, too.

Boom Supersonic

Expect to see it in: 2026

The buzz: It’ll fly you from Tokyo to San Francisco in less than six hours

Boom, a Denver—based startup, is poised to produce Overture—the first civilian supersonic jet since the Anglo-French Concorde was retired almost two decades ago. It’s aiming to start test flights as early as 2025, and recently revealed that it’s partnering with Rolls Royce to develop the engines. One potential customer is Japan Airlines, an early investor in the company, which gives it an option to buy up to 20 of the 55-seat airliners. The aircraft would fly at just over twice the speed of sound—Mach 2.2—but will likely be limited to subsonic speeds (under 700 mph) over land. Still, the idea of flying from the East Coast to London in half the current time, or from the West Coast to Asia is hard to resist, especially as Boom promises to make it a pleasant ride, with each passenger getting an oversized window. The company claims that fares won’t be much higher than business class, even though Concorde fares soared well beyond the first-class tab.

Overture has some possible competition from Exosonic, a Silicon Valley startup founded by Stanford grad and aerospace engineer Norris Tie. Exosonic’s goal is to develop a 70-seat plane that can fly supersonically overland and overwater with a muted sonic boom, thus overcoming the main hurdle to putting the plane into wider service in the U.S. It is still in the concept-design stage with the first commercial flight targeted for 2030, but the entrepreneurs behind it are gaining attention for their innovative approach.

Blended Wing /Flying V

Expect to see it in: 2035

The buzz: The planes of the far-out future

And finally, if you really want a futuristic craft to fantasize about, plane makers are reportedly reviving plans to build a no-tail “blended wing” aircraft that, well, looks more like giant bat. Airbus recently unveiled a scale model of a prototype design that it claims can reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent while carrying hundreds of people. Meanwhile, KLM is backing a similar venture with Delft’s Technical University—Holland’s version of MIT—for a plane model with the descriptive name of “Flying V.” Both of these visionary projects are said to be years from fruition, and that’ll give us plenty of time to think about how we really want to fly in the future.

This story was last published in September 2018. It has been updated with new information.

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