International Air Travel Will Be Fun Again in the Near Future

By Bryan Lufkin on at

Being abroad, far from home in strange new places, is inherently thrilling but it often requires coping with an interminable, soul-sucking flight to get there. But things are looking good for the future of air travel, so tray tables up please and prepare for take-off.

Imagine an long-haul flight that’s actually enjoyable, with ergonomically designed seats and an in-flight entertainment system that syncs to your personal devices. Where security checks are swiftly done with biometric scanning. You land in a foreign airport that's replete with robots and holograms, before hopping on a super-fast maglev train to your robot-staffed hotel with your pocket-sized translator in hand.

Sound far-fetched? It’s not, really. Because there’s more of us travelling than ever. According to a 2014 study conducted by Oxford Economics, the global travel industry is set to increase 5.4 per cent each year for the next 10 years, outpacing global GDP growth. The UN World Tourism Organization said over a billion humans travelled internationally in 2014, and it’s a number expected to go up by nearly 5 per cent this year.

With all those people getting more passport stamps, there’s a market, and a need, to better accommodate tourists. Here’s what you can look forward to.

Eco-Friendly Planes

Flying is overpriced, cramped and uncomfortable. The good news is there are some new plane designs meant to address those problems.

First, emissions: Earlier this year, Pricewaterhouse Coopers forecasted that air traffic will double in the next 20 years, and to reduce all those atmosphere-destroying pollutants, aircraft engineers are looking toward alternative energy — namely that green slimy wonder-fuel, algae. Algae emits nearly 70 per cent less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based fuels.

It’s already happening: Back in 2011, United Airlines made history with the first-ever algae-fuelled passenger flight from Chicago to Houston. Meanwhile, Japanese startup Euglena (named by the country’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe as his “favourite” startup) is looking to commercialise algae biofuels within the next five years.

Rethinking the aeroplane's basic shape can also make them lighter, more aerodynamic, and less of a fuel drain.

Take this 2012 design from NASA and MIT, called the “double bubble”, which is a plane formed of two fuselages. Shrunken wings, an upturned nose, and reducing Mach to 0.72 from 0.80 can cut fuel use by a whopping 70 per cent compared to a Boeing 737, according to MIT and NASA. The designers hope to have the plane in the skies by 2035.

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.

Another concept design teased earlier this year uses wings that use a shape-shifting design to adjust their position so the plane uses less fuel. It's a collaboration between NASA, the US Air Force Research Lab, and Michigan engineering firm FlexSys Inc, and the teams want to make planes that can automatically adjust the wing flap angles at certain points during the flight to make it more aerodynamic.

Meanwhile, in this video, Airbus took the idea of a concept plane and ran with it, imagining seats made of recyclable plant fibres that can be grown into a certain shape, along with bird’s-eye view observation decks.

Biomimetics is another way engineers are looking to nature to make machines lighter, more agile, and more efficient. Earlier this year, Airbus unveiled a conceptual biomimetic plane that models plane bodies after bird bones; by the year 2050, Airbus envisions a jet body that’s hollow, like the inside of a bird’s bone, making it lighter and more fuel efficient.

Avoiding Turbulence

The future isn’t all sunny skies filled with wacky birdplanes, though. Climate change throws a spanner in the works because, for transatlantic travellers, the jaunt across the pond will likely be way bumpier in the coming decades. Scientists predict greater turbulence over the Atlantic due to abnormal climate patterns.

In 2013, a study from the Reading University found that incidences of turbulence could double due to the changing climate. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau study last year also described an “unprecedented” increase in turbulence in the last two years, though a potential cause was not listed.

While turbulence can be scary, it’s not really dangerous. But if you’re like me and you wet yourself at even the slightest jolt, the future looks brighter. The Los Angeles Times reports on new software that sends weather data from planes to control centres, which can help other planes avoid the rough air. Pilots often relay brushes with turbulence after they’ve made it through the choppiness, but this new technology transmits reports in real time, the Times reports.

Personalised Flights

Getting from point A to point B has, in some respects, has become more uncomfortable over the years: checked bag fees, gross food, more crowded flights. But entertainment technology has made the hours in a pressurised metal tube more bearable. And travel technology experts say that, as entertainment tech gets more integrated with each other, the more personalised experience it means for you.

“One day, the hope is that your purchase history [from] Apple Pay will inform the sort of meals you are offered on your flight,” says Mark Brierly, editor at Future Airport magazine. “Just as the music you listened to on your Spotify-connected Uber account on the way to the airport will inform the music selection on your in-flight entertainment system, just like your Netflix account will inform the choice of movies available during the flight.”

This could get tricky, he says, because airlines could start leverage big data to force you into airline customer loyalty, just like Apple and Google try to tie us to our ecosystems already. “For example, Star Alliance airlines could sign a deal with Apple, whereas SkyTeam airlines could do the same with Android, to ensure they got the customers to stick with them,” Brierly says.

Seriously Amazing Airports

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.This transport bot (in the foreground) is able to carry 400 pounds. It’s one of three service robots Tokyo’s introducing at its Haneda Airport. Image credit: Reuters

The world’s airports are getting a makeover. The BBC reports that airport operators around the world have invested nearly £5 billion in IT systems, and we’ll be seeing that money coming back to us with features like automated check-in, beautiful airport lobbies, and helpful robots.

“Airports are increasingly becoming these massive, sprawling cities within cities,” says Brierly. (That also poses challenges, though, so finding a big enough site for these mega airports might be a challenge in some places.)

Earlier this year, Tokyo’s Haneda Airport started rolling out robots that ferry luggage, give directions, and more. Some airports have even introduced hologram assistants.

I was in Miami this summer and was startled when I saw this hologram. Yes, I had guzzled three cans of Heineken at 30,000 feet, but I distinctly remember walking through arrivals at 9 PM and seeing a small crowd gathered around a flickering, glowing 2D image. Is that a hologram? I thought. “She” didn’t really do much besides smile, though she did serve as a prime Instagram subject:

It’s something you’ll be seeing more of. Dulles Airport debuted a “hologram” of their own in 2012, and Glasgow unveiled one earlier this year. (To be fair, these are more like projections onto a 2D surface—but if they can make holograms of Tupac and Redd Foxx, they can make info-dispensing, multilingual helpers at major international transport hubs.)

And while airports aren’t exactly known for being good for the environment, that could change in the coming years, too. Over in the Galapagos, its airport is solar-run and low-emission. Built in 2012, CNN reports that 80 per cent of the facility’s infrastructure is made from recycled materials; it even has a desalination plant that transforms nearby seawater into usable water.

Speaking of water? Singapore’s Changi Airport, scheduled for completion in 2018, will show off the world’s largest indoor waterfall and a five-storey garden called “Forest City”.

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.A 40-metre waterfall, playgrounds, five storeys of retail, and a hotel will help Changi turn the airport stereotypes of uncomfortable seats and fast food on its head. Image credit: Changi Airport

These transit hubs of the future will be beautiful places to be. Airports may start resembling mini-cities. Some will get bigger, like New York’s LaGuardia. Meanwhile, there will be brand new airports — and they will be huge. For example, Dubai’s Al Maktoum International, aka “Dubai World Center,” will cost £20 billion and is scheduled to open in 2027, serving 160 million passengers per year, making it far and away the busiest airport on Near Future Earth.

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.The UAE’s Abu Dhabi Midfield Terminal could handle 40 million passengers annually, and is one of the upcoming “mega-airports” in the Middle East that’ll serve as major international travel hubs.

Passports That are More Secure

Nowadays, our passports and credit cards are embedded with tiny microchips that brim with a treasure trove of personal information. It’s a crook’s dream. How will we protect ourselves while travelling?

RFID — or radio frequency identification technology — has been in use for decades, and today it’s found in bank cards, security access cards, and yup, passports. It involves embedding a chip in the document, thus the concern for years has been tech-savvy thieves using RFID readers to steal your personal information via radio waves that RFID-embedded documents emit.

But researchers at Madrid Polytechnic University are toying with a new biometric that’ll add an extra layer of protection that’ll help spot-swiped passports, and hopefully prevent crooks from getting through security your stolen personal information: They’d need your personal odour, too. It’s more accurate than facial recognition, but the researchers say the sensors aren’t as effective as, say, police dogs.

Passports might be a lot prettier, too, as Norway’s gorgeous passport redesign showed last year. The Canadian passport incorporated something the Norwegian one did, too: awesome hidden art embedded into the pages, fully revealed only under a black light.

It’s more than just an aesthetic Easter egg. It’s yet another security firewall. The multiple pages of multiple UV-reactive inks are a sign of authenticity.

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.Norway’s new passports, unveiled last year, are more secure thanks to the beautiful design: Under a black light, the intricate minimalist design reveals the aurora borealis, signalling an authentic Norwegian passport. Credit: Neue

Instant Translation Devices

OK, so you touched down on foreign soil. Time to have some fun. But one of the biggest obstacles of international travel? Language barriers. If you’re visiting a foreign land where you don’t know ni hao from n’est-ce pas, the future has some extremely handy gadgets.

We previously reported on Japan’s plans to arm the 900,000 foreign visitors with portable decipherers for Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympics. Panasonic’s making pocket-sized instant translators that convert your native language to Japanese in the blink of an eye.

In the same vein, Google rolled out a smartphone app early this year that instantly translates signs in foreign languages into English, simply by pointing your phone’s camera at the indecipherable signage.

Still, reliable, fast translation software is tough. Just like human translating and interpreting, there are a lot of challenges, ranging from obscure sentence structure, slang words, cultural references, and situational nuance that, even if translated, could still leave non-native speakers scratching their heads. There’s still plenty that could get lost in translation. Who can help us? Robots!

Multilingual androids on staff at hotels, shops, and airports can lend us a hand when humans or translation gadgets can’t. In California last year, DIY store Lowe’s started experimenting with something called OshBot, a robotic sales associate that uses a viewfinder that scans items you’re looking for so it can direct you to the right aisle. The international applications aren’t limited to helping foreign customers on the spot, showing people where items are: it can also connect you instantly via videophone to a human sales associate that speaks your native language.

Hotels will also be staffed with translation stations, or robots who speak many tongues. This one at a theme park in Japan with dinosaur receptionists is one of the weirder examples, but the country is looking to get additional professional talking androids in the halls of hotels and malls in the next five years.

In the Future, International Airline Travel Will Actually Be Fun Again. No, Really.This is Toshiba’s ChihiraJunco, who can speak English, Japanese, and Chinese, revealed last week at shopping centre’s information desk in Tokyo. Japan’s been gradually introducing robotic, multilingual staff in hotels and shops. Image Credit: Japan Times YouTube

More Countries With High-Speed Rail

If the trends continue, the future will be home to some amazing trains, including really fast ones. According to a US rail association, 24 countries are developing HSR, from Turkey and Saudi Arabia to Portugal and Argentina.

Governments and companies with fantastic high-speed rail want to export their trains overseas: like Japan (who has the oldest, most punctual and safest high-speed trains in the world) and China (who’s been running their amazing maglev train, still considered pie-in-the-sky sci-fi for most of the world, in Shanghai for a whopping 11 years). For example, Japan’s shinkansen is planned to be brought to Thailand, and China’s taking its tech to Turkey.

Of course, a lot of this should be taken with a pinch of salt: like all emerging technologies, it takes a while to become widespread and achieve affordable price points for companies and individuals to make them realistic. But many of these technological and infrastructural advancements — like algae fuels, mammoth airports, and assistive androids — are already in the works.

Top image credit: Chicago O’Hare International Airport via N i c o l a/Flickr