From Icarus' wings to DaVinci's drawings, from the Wright Brothers to Chuck Yeager, our earthbound species has always sought out new ways to get ourselves aloft. And yet -- with the exception of less leg-room and smaller packages of peanuts -- the average person's experience of air travel hasn't felt like it's changed much in the last 30 years.
And yet, the advances have been amazing. The Wright brothers only just flew in 1903, after all. But by 1920 we had the pressurized cabin that allowed people to fly above the weather. By 1930 we had the Jet engine, and we had the four-engine Boeing 707 by the 1950s.
And by the 1960s? Well, "We went from not being able to fly at all to being able to go to moon and back" in the space of just one person's lifetime, in the words of John Tracy, chief technology officer at Boeing, speaking Tuesday at The Atlantic's Big Science Summit in San Jose, Calif.
Tracy said that when Boeing thinks about how to innovate next they talk to their customers, the airlines and other carriers. "We could have built a plane that went Mach 2.4 and carried 300 passengers," he said. "We could have built the Sonic Cruiser that flew close to speed of sound." But what their customers resoundingly called for was efficiency.
And when it comes to efficiency, the future is the Boeing 787. Not only is it 20 percent more efficient than the plane it replaced, but it is the first plane built with 50 percent of its structure made of graphite, epoxy, and other composite materials. This makes the plane lighter, so it can fly longer hauls without refueling.
This efficiency has advantages for the atmosphere as well. In fact, the Boeing 787 now has the same efficiency per person as a Prius with two passengers. Boeing is working hard to convert their future to one of sustainable fuels. By 2015 Boeing plans to see one percent of all their fuel -- about 600 million gallons of year -- created from sustainable sources. Tracy believes that this is the tipping point, and that radical sustainability will follow. "We've run 1,500 commercial flights with biofuels" already, he said. It requires no additional infrastructure.
The new design will make flying more comfortable as well. Old planes were made out of aluminum, which was subject to rust. So pilots had to keep the cabins dry, increasing passenger fatigue. The new materials allow for fresher air and also for the capability to pressurize the cabin to the equivalent of 6,000 feet of altitude instead of 8,000, so you'll arrive feeling better than you did on the old models.
But the bottom line for airplanes is always safety. Tracy points out that there has not been a commercial airline crash in the U.S. in over two years. More people die in accidental drownings every year than have died in U.S. aviation over the last 30 years. In fact, you're 70 times more likely to die in your car than you would flying over the same distance. And that's a statistic that even daredevils like Orville Wright and Chuck Yeager couldn't argue with.
So while the seat-back movies might still have the good parts edited out, and while the bags of peanuts aren't likely to get any bigger, your experience of flight is due to change for the better.