Supersonic speed, modular cabin design, all electric power, transparent cabin walls, pilotless planes, personal jets for everyone—that all sounds great, but what’s actually the plane of the future. In the next 15-20 years, what will be the next major aircraft release to make an impact on the industry? Well, it’s not nearly as exciting as those concepts, at least for passengers. More and more people travel by plane each year and the industry is only growing. In recent years the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has made a significant impact on the airline industry. This relatively small, super-efficient, long range airplane has allowed for the advent of long-haul budget airlines and for traditional airlines to open up long-haul routes between smaller markets.
Now, the near-future of aviation has a lot to do with one decision Boeing made almost a decade ago—a decision they’ve been regretting ever since. In 1983 the first Boeing 757 entered into service with Eastern Airlines. It was billed as a replacement to the successful 727 for popular shorter routes that needed more seats than a 737. At the time it was incredibly fuel efficient burning 40% less fuel per seat than its predecessor. It sold well, but not phenomenally. By the turn of the millennium about a thousand were made and sales were slowing rapidly so Boeing pulled the plug on the aircraft’s production in 2004.
But then, in 2007, the aircraft started to be used for something it wasn’t intended for—transatlantic service. When the 757 was originally developed airlines weren’t really allowed to fly twin-engine aircraft over long stretches of ocean, but the regulations changed so airlines changed how they used the plane. With a range of well over 4,000 miles, the 757 can easily reach most destinations in western Europe from the US east coast. When operating a smaller plane, airlines are almost guaranteed that they can fill the seats so they’re almost guaranteed to make money. So, instead of operating larger planes that might not fill up, airlines started flying this single-aisle, twin-engine plane across the Atlantic. The smaller size also allowed airlines to fly to smaller destinations with smaller demand. United, for example, flies this plane on routes like New York to Shannon, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Lisbon, and Stockholm. At the same time, since the plane was originally developed for domestic routes, it can easily be used for shorter domestic flights between transatlantic flights which leads to high aircraft utilization—a key to profitability.
But these planes are getting old. Some have been in service for well over 30 years and airlines need to retire them to remain competitive both with passenger comfort and with aircraft efficiency and right now, nobody really knows what’s going to replace these aging 757’s. There’s a huge gap in the market. The biggest Boeing single aisle aircraft in production is the 737 Max 10 while the smallest twin-aisle aircraft is the 787-8 Dreamliner. In an all economy configuration the Max 10 carries 230 passengers while the Dreamliner carries 359 passengers. Meanwhile, the Max 10 can fly up to 3,700 miles while the Dreamliner can fly up to 8,300 miles. At between 230 and 280 passengers and up to 4,000 nautical miles, the 757 perfectly fits between the two sizes, but we need a plane of the future for this middle spot. Neither Boeing or Airbus has officially announced plans for a middle of the market plane but it’s almost certain that the next entirely new plane to hit the market will be in this sweet spot of size.
Boeing tried to hurriedly make a plane this size with the 737-MAX program but many traditional airlines aren’t buying it. Budget airlines love using it to serve between the British Isles and US east coast, but the largest 737-MAX can only fly up to 3,700 miles—only barely reaching continental Europe from New York. United, Delta, and American Airlines all want a longer-range and slightly larger plane for their low-demand transatlantic routes. So here’s the good news: this plane is coming. There have only been trickles of information, but we’ve all but confirmed that the Boeing 797 will be a brand new plane between the size of the 737 and the 787 and here’s what it will look like. It will have between 225 and 260 seats and a range of just shy of 6,000 miles—enough to get even to the American west coast from London. While the increased range of the 737-Max planes is allowing transatlantic service from smaller cities in the British Isles and American east coast, this 797 will open transatlantic service from cities deeper into the continents along with replacing the aging 757s.
With super-efficient engines and composite design, it will be one of the most efficient planes yet and further drive down the cost of hopping the pond. Meanwhile, Airbus is doing nothing, because they already tried. The Airbus a310 was exactly the size of this potential 797 but they only sold 250 of them. It was likely before its time—airlines just didn’t consider serving long-haul routes between smaller markets at the time. It’s a newer concept. Ironically, the best replacement for the Boeing 757 is actually an Airbus plane—the a321 neo long range—but this plane is a bit too small to serve as a true replacement.
It’s more a temporary solution until Boeing releases their solution. As of now the 797 would most likely enter service in 2025 so it will be a while until we know which manufacturer chose correctly. But what’s next? After completing their entire ranges of aircraft sizes, what will Boeing and Airbus make to remain competitive? Right now oil prices are low so there’s less pressure to operate greener aircraft, but most analysts predict a doubling of oil prices in the next 20-30 years with ever faster increases after that. The industry will need to adapt to stay alive against the potential future threat of high-speed land-based transportation systems like hyperloop. For that, electric is the answer. Fuel is airlines’ number one cost and cutting that out could make flying competitive in price to taking the bus, but electric aircraft have their limitations. Current batteries are heavy and electric engines are weak so electric aircraft are limited in speed and range, but there’s a place for that kind of aircraft—on regional routes. Trains currently dominate the 200-400 mile transportation market. Think DC to New York, Edinburgh to London, or Tokyo to Osaka.
There’s just no way that the plane can beat the train in terms of price, convenience, and time, but the electric aircraft has the potential to beat the train on the most important of those three factors—price. By offering a transportation option at roughly the same cost but significantly faster than the bus, electric aircraft will have the potential to dominate the short-haul market because on shorter routes, aircraft speed doesn’t really matter. On flights so short, aircraft barely get up to their top speeds. Both British Airways and Flybe operate the Edinburgh to London Heathrow route, for example, but British Airways uses a320 and 767 jets while Flybe uses Bombardier Dash 8 turboprops.
British Airways flies this route in an average 79 minutes while Flybe, with their slower turboprop planes flies between Edinburgh and London Heathrow in a faster 73 minutes on average. British Airways’ a320 has a top speed of 541 mph while Flybe’s dash 8 has a top speed of 370 miles per hour and yet the turboprop flies the route faster. On such a short route, the low speed of an electric airplane wouldn’t matter since aircraft can’t get up to speed and the dramatic cost reduction would make airplanes the absolute dominant transportation method in short-haul markets.
Airbus is the current market leader in electric aircraft development with a goal to release a hybrid commuter aircraft by 2030, but as the reality of a world without oil nears, Boeing will likely start more serious development of an electric aircraft in the coming years. None of this is to say that we will never see some of the more exciting future aircraft concepts, but the entire aviation industry is dictated by economics, not comfort. It’s a lot easier for airlines to market lower prices than it is for them to sell higher comfort so more efficient aircraft will always win. With the completion of a middle-of-the-market airplane, however, the entire range of aircraft sizes will be filled in a way that might allow the aircraft manufacturers to turn their focus to developing more novel aircraft concepts that will change the way we fly in the future. The good news is that these aircraft developments are all about making flying cheaper which will let more and more people fly for less. If you have a business, a youtube channel, a podcast, or really anything else, you need a professional web presence.
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