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Electric Planes? The Future of Airplane Technology

It’s been more than a year since the Boeing 787 Dreamliner—the new composite-material airplane plagued by glitches and smoking batteries—was un-grounded by the FAA. But what’s up with airplanes since?

Dreamliner
More than 20 million passengers have ridden the 787 since 2011, on routes like the brand-new Boston to Beijing, now feasible with the lightweight and relatively small airliner. A longer 787-9 was just certified by the FAA but it’s hard to detect the 20-foot difference unless you’re parallel parking the plane.

Composite Competition
The upcoming Airbus A350 XWB is also made of fuel-efficient composite and claims to best the 787 in cost per seat per mile. Still, a Dreamliner-sized coming-out party is unlikely due to Emirates Airlines canceling its order of 70 planes in June. They may buy from Boeing instead.

Electric Planes
Airbus Group just announced that by 2017 they’ll make two-seater E-Fan planes, fully electric aircraft powered by, well, fans (or shrouded propellors). But a sky Prius isn’t imminent, says aviation journalist David Parker Brown of AirlineReporter.com: “We’ll see more use of biofuel before we see electric,” he predicts. Will technology ever give us, say, a two-hour flight from Australia to Europe? Not soon, he says, since leaps in efficiency will outpace speed—super-fast travel just isn’t worth all the sonic booms and face-melting heat.

Entertainment
The biggest leaps in passenger experience are coming via improved in-flight WiFi like Gogo GTO, which uses satellites and collaborates with cellular towers for connectivity. “Give people something on their iPad and a beer, and they won’t notice being crammed in as much,” says Brown.

What’s Old Is New
Airlines are merging and disappearing, but there are small, sputtering attempts to relaunch classic brands such as Pan Am and People Express. In May a reboot of Eastern Airlines put flight attendant fashions on the catwalk at Miami Fashion Week; none have managed to actually take off yet.

For more on the future of travel, read Keep Your Shoes On: The Future of Airport Security.

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