(Bloomberg) — From Star Wars-like flying machines to aircraft that track how long passengers spend in the bathroom, the world of aviation and the way we travel is changing fast. Some hints about the future came at this week’s Singapore Airshow, where new concepts catering to the shifting demands of airlines and passengers were on display.
Airbus SE unveiled a model of a sleek jet named Maveric, which it describes as a game-changer. The aircraft’s wings and main body merge into one, a design that Airbus says can reduce fuel consumption and provide more space in the cabin. Back in October, Boeing Co. and Porsche signed an agreement to explore making a machine capable of vertical takeoff and landing as part of a push into urban flights. That’s an area that Toyota Motor Corp., Hyundai Motor Co. and Uber Technologies Inc., among many others, are investing in too.
Elsewhere, German startup Volocopter GmbH, backed by Daimler AG and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, completed a test flight of a prototype that looks like a mix between a helicopter and a drone. Air France-KLM is investing in a concept called the Flying-V, splitting the aircraft into two sections toward the rear in another blended-wing design.
U.S company Lantal Textiles has developed products for commercial aircraft including a heating and cooling system for seats, similar to those available in some higher-end cars, while Lonseal Inc. designed flooring to mimic the grainy details of real wood, which it says helps create a more soothing atmosphere in the cabin.
Airbus aims to help flight attendants respond to passengers’ needs by providing sensors to monitor when bathroom soap runs low or how much toilet paper is in each lavatory. Fokker Technologies is working on a way to infuse fragrances through the cabin’s air-conditioning, with the possibility of creating signature scents for specific airlines, while Panasonic Avionics Corp.’s developments include a system that purifies air around premium seats.
Airlines are vying to see who can go the furthest in a single flight. Qantas Airways Ltd.’s “Project Sunrise” aims to start direct commercial services to New York and London from Sydney in the first half of 2023. The Australian carrier has already done test flights: Bloomberg’s Angus Whitley was among the few people on board a marathon trip from New York to Sydney last year.
These flights are in turn a boon to an emerging industry focusing on jet lag recovery. Singapore Airlines Ltd., for example, has teamed up with health and wellness brand Canyon Ranch to try making long journeys more bearable.
AI is already taking on a more prominent role in the aviation industry, perhaps most noticeably at transport hubs. The giant new Daxing International Airport in south Beijing, for example, has face-recognition technology everywhere, linking passengers’ faces to their passports. In a recent interview, the deputy general manager of planning and design for the airport, which opened in September, said purchases at duty-free stores can also be made “with your face.”
London’s Heathrow Airport is testing an array of ultra high-definition cameras to help determine more accurately when runways are clear of planes and cut the gap between flights by as much as 20 seconds. Singapore’s Changi Airport plans to use AI to monitor the moment a plane lines up to land. Once at the gate, a laser-guided aerobridge will position itself to let passengers disembark, while automated vehicles will unload baggage, dodging others that are delivering robot-packed meals.
The coronavirus outbreak that’s spread from central China to much of the world has already had a crippling impact on the airline industry, with thousands of flight cancellations and capacity cuts. While analysts expect a rebound once the crisis is under control, it could leave deep scars on travelers and the industry as many airlines struggle to survive. Qantas Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce recently said that it could lead to a “survival of the fittest” battle among airlines. On Wednesday, China signaled that some of the nation’s struggling airlines could merge to better cope with the plunge in travel.
And face masks will likely be a much more common sight on aircraft, even though this doctor recommends against using them.