The Future of Air Travel, as Seen from MIT

An expert panel looks ahead to the airline experience of 2030, with more passengers and fewer (if any) pilots.

Chicago O'Hare, already one of the busiest airports in the world, will only get busier. (nicola / flickr)
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Predictions about tomorrow’s technology often miss the mark, but when a panel of experts like the one assembled recently to celebrate 100 years of aerospace research at MIT gazes into the crystal ball, we can’t help but pay attention.

The panelists—all MIT faculty members or graduates who now hold top positions in the aerospace industry—foresaw steady improvement in aeronautics technology. No surprise there. But they also agreed that an expected sharp rise in global air traffic, combined with stricter environmental regulation, pose formidable challenges for future airlines.

MIT aeronautics professor John Hansman said that part of the problem will be improving a system that’s already very efficient, and has achieved a global safety record of just 0.2 accidents in every million departures. “We’re sort of a victim of our own success,” he said. “The system is so good that if you want to do something innovative and change, it’s actually hard to do.…We don’t have a very high risk tolerance.”

One avenue to big savings could be reducing—or even eliminating—the pilot crew on future airliners. Jeff Katz of air travel booking company Orbitz said that “Fewer pilots per airplane is really on the minds of airline executives today, but [is] not much talked about.” The hurdles here have more to do with social acceptance and marketing than technology, the panel agreed. Katz didn’t foresee pilot-less airliners in his own lifetime, but rather “in my kids’ generation.”

The panel also spent a fair amount of time discussing how the passenger’s experience will be different in 2030, when, as Pat Shanahan of Boeing predicted, 70,000 takeoffs per day will become more like 300,000 per day. Former astronaut Mike Collins, who had appeared on an earlier panel of Apollo veterans, got laughs and applause from the audience when he asked, during the Q&A session, about the mundane problem of boarding and unboarding an aircraft, typically through one narrow door. “It takes probably a half hour for me and my fellow passengers to get loaded. It takes probably 15 minutes on the other end to get off the damn airplane. Help!”

Hansman, the MIT professor, agreed that more “holistic” questions like these, encompassing the total air travel experience, are important to consider when educating future aerospace engineers.

The entire discussion, including the Q&A period, lasts about an hour, and is worth watching.

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