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Air travel: Blue-sky thinking

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- In our age of convenient and affordable air travel, it is hard to imagine the daunting challenge Orville and Wilbur Wright faced as they attempted the first powered flight on December 17, 1903.

However a new era of air travel with millions more passengers and the need for cleaner and quieter jets has presented new challenges for this century. New challenges that are being met by developing existing ideas and blue-sky thinking.

CNN Future Summit Nominating Committee member Ian Pearson says larger airliners are an inevitable feature of future air travel and talk of "flying wings" could be part of the designs - fusing the wings and fuselage into one sleek vehicle they look more like a boomerang than a conventional jet aeroplane.

While these plans remain on the drawing board, bigger planes are already being developed. Airbus has placed a large stake of its future on the success of its superjumbo, the A380, as industry forecasts predict that passenger numbers will double in 15 years and could even triple by 2030.

Ideal for the most popular intercontinental routes to main hub airports, superjumbos may be the workhorses of future air travel. However, the proliferation of smaller networks already seen with the rise in budget airlines is likely to continue.

A shift away from the "hub-and-spoke" model of air travel opens up another means of future air travel that works on a much smaller scale and could create highways in the sky. The days of travelling to one main hub and then taking a secondary flight to a smaller airport may be made redundant by air taxis.

Small passenger aircraft that Boeing and NASA have been researching would provide point-to-point, on-demand travel opening up areas directly to air transportation. NASA's Small Aircraft Transportation system (SATs) envisions aircraft for four to eight passengers, and ultimately affordable personal aircraft that are computer operated, without the need for a pilot.

Size matters then, but engine technology and fuel efficiency is also at the forefront of research into the future of air travel.

New composite materials will ensure that planes are stronger and lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient. Super-sonic travel could still make a boom, too, with the development of scramjets able to reach speeds of Mach 5 and above.

A successful test flight by NASA's X43-A jet in 2004 reached Mach 8. Successful application to commecial aviation could make a London to Sydney journey fly by in only 90 minutes.

Currently it is the cost of maintenance on the supersonic jet engines that prevents them from being a viable option for airlines to operate.

"When the technology develops to allow the engines to stay on wing longer with the increased wear and tear of supersonic flight, then travel at Mach speeds will be viable," Terrance Scott a spokesman for Boeing told CNN.

"However, that technology will likely also allow significant fuel savings at subsonic speeds, so we may face a situation of choosing between speed and fuel-efficiency."

Whether new technologies get taken on will continue to depend on the business case that can be made for them. But meeting passenger growth and environmental targets for the future means aircraft manufacturers are examining all options, from synthetic fuels that only use 50 percent jet fuel to all electric engines that would both provide thrust and electrical power for the cabin.

Because safety is such an important part of the aviation industry, it is unlikely that you will see radical changes in the next 20 years.

"It is much more likely that the changes that come will be subtle and allow the airplanes to be more efficient and incur fewer maintenance requirements," said Scott.

The most noticeable change in aviation could come in the companies that operate the planes. "The airline industry is going to be completely revolutionized over the next 20 to 30 years," says Richard Quest, presenter of CNN Business Traveller, who has flown more than 200,000 miles already this year.


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An early model of NASA's plans for a network of air taxis

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