The new generation of supersonic planes could defy all design conventions.
Concorde may be long retired from the skies but the romance and excitement of supersonic travel lives on, a new age of aviation is now on the horizon. Earlier this month, NASA announced it is developing a range of supersonic ‘X-planes’ that could ultimately lead to commercial flight becoming quieter, more efficient, and much, much faster.
This second age of supersonic couldn’t come soon enough for the airline industry. For years now we have relegated our flying fantasies to the new age of terminal functionalism. Grey corridors in grey buildings with automated services and plastic smiles, followed by grey cabins and grey food.
There was much hyperbole and promise surrounding the A380. This double deck, four-engine model was introduced by Airbus in 2005, becoming the world's largest airplane. But in reality few have managed to do little else than increase the number of commuters on the bus. The physical experience, ultimately, is often a massive disappointment, offering none of the variation or delight that we were led to believe early in the development phase.
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So what could this new age of supersonic travel offer this time? The assumptions have to be that it will be a very premium-priced ticket, further consigning the A380 to the designation of mega mass transportation. If the Gordon Gekko’s of the 80s and 90s will now Skype to close their deals rather than take the arrow across the Atlantic, the benefit and experience will need to be very different if it is to attract the affluent future passenger.
Whilst space is likely to be somewhat limited compared to the A380 it doesn’t follow that, at a premium price ticket, passenger liberty has to be too. Let’s dream the dream for a moment…
The cabin could offer two very different on board opportunities for the new age globe hopper. Firstly, the complete comfort and control of your own supersonic seat. The traditional orientation of the seat: facing forward could be rethought to enable passengers to choose to face forward on takeoff, look out of the window when landing, turn and face each other for dining by rotating on an axis.
This simple system could offer social/work/sleep/sight-seeing options in one design within the limited physical restraints of one seat.
Elsewhere, an artfully split level cabin for a restaurant and cocktail experience showing films or live events would start to stretch the typical definitions and expectations of cabin claustrophobia and change the interior architecture that has been so predictable for decades.
The real luxury of this is "choice". There has been no meaningful development of cabin interiors that offer different modes of activity during a flight. It has all been focused around the few personal square metres of seat space and whilst we’ve seen huge development in individual seat design there has been virtually none in more shared, communal on board spaces.
In the new supersonic era, capacity would be limited, unlike the price of the ticket, but it would create a new type of flying option. The closest equivalent would be a luxury yacht, but in the hyper fast lane, changing the way we fly to suit exactly what we want to do. Sleep or socialise, relax or watch Real Madrid live? You choose.
We have seen the industry drive economies by balancing the finite financial equation of passenger volume, fuel burn, weight and time efficiencies – culminating in the Airbus A380. It’s time to break the traditional paradigm and welcome in a new era of transport design.
This is, in essence, a great opportunity for the interior design of these new airplanes to mirror the technology – ground-breaking, entirely customer-focused and future-proofed. I can't wait.