Development of commercial aviation technology is aimed largely at improving airplane operating economics, which directly affect airline profitability. Fuel is expected to remain the largest component of airplane operating cost, so technology development efforts focus strongly on reducing fuel consumption. The latest generation of Boeing airplanes, including the 787, 747-8, and the upcoming 737 MAX and 777X, reduce fuel consumption by double-digit percentages compared with earlier-generation airplanes.
Developments in engine technology made possible by advances in materials, aerodynamics, and manufacturing techniques drive much of the improvement. Advances in wing design also contribute to better fuel efficiency. The use of composites in the 787 and 777X wings permitted aerodynamic improvements that could not be achieved using conventional materials. The Boeing Advanced Technology Winglet on the 737 MAX optimizes the performance of the single-aisle airplane's wing. Improved engines, aerodynamics, and systems also reduce noise by as much as 30 percent in the case of the 747-8.
Many developments that reduce fuel use also improve range and payload capabilities. Increased range capability enables airlines to expand the connectivity of their global networks. Increased payload capability allows airlines to carry additional passengers and revenue cargo, which improves profit potential on a given route. For example, a growing number of airlines are increasing passenger revenue by taking advantage of the flexibility of the 777-300ER interior configuration to install 10-abreast economy class seating.
Innovative interiors enable airlines to carry more passengers while improving passenger experience. For instance, larger and higher windows, sculpted sidewalls, and higher ceilings give a cabin interior a more spacious feel. Larger bins that are easier to open and close are more convenient for the crew and enhance passenger experience. The 787 maintains cabin pressure equivalent to that at 6,000 feet of altitude, with improved air purity and more comfortable cabin humidity than earlier airplanes. Developments such as the innovative, flexible lighting on the 787 help airlines differentiate their brands in creative ways that make flying more enjoyable.
Airlines are also increasingly looking to information technology (IT) solutions to improve operational efficiency, decrease costs, improve customer service, and increase safety. Increased communications connectivity and improved mobile technologies are helping IT solutions penetrate every aspect of airline operations, including maintenance and engineering, ground, and in-flight operations.
Maintenance and engineering
Airlines are seeking airplane and engine health management solutions that provide better prognostic capabilities. The ability to predict maintenance events and connect with maintenance operations during flight can minimize the number and duration of flight disruptions. Improved disruption management solutions can reduce the systemwide effect of delays and cancellations. Digital delivery of maintenance manuals and other technical information, updates, technical authoring tools, and data conversion technologies all improve the efficiency and accuracy of airline maintenance operations. Supply-chain solutions using optimized inventory management and parts procurement solutions can also reduce operating costs. In some cases, new aircraft technology is driving airlines to improve their own technology and capabilities. The latest airplanes, such as the Boeing 787, use vastly more loadable software airplane parts (LSAP), but the traditional method of using floppy disks to load LSAPs is becoming obsolete, pushing airl ines to upgrade technology on the ground and in the air.
The trend toward in-flight connectivity is evident in the rapidly increasing use of mobile devices such as tablets, phablets, and smart phones by the flight crew and cabin crew. Electronic flight bags have been in use for decades, but improved connectivity now allows pilots to quickly upload the latest navigation charts to their devices and monitor weather in flight, adjust flight plans to optimize fuel use, use moving runway and taxiway maps for improved situational awareness, and use a wide variety of applications to improve crew productivity and enhance safety. Cabin crew members use mobile devices with in-flight connectivity for onboard sales (including verification of credit cards to eliminate fraud), passenger services, and crew communication and to access crew reporting tools. The growing prevalence of personal electronic devices among passengers could eventually allow airlines to eliminate costly and weighty in-flight entertainment systems in favor of streamed content as onboard Wi-Fi speeds improve.
Airline planning and ground operations
IT advances can touch all parts of the airline planning cycle. Airline planners and ground operations suppliers can take advantage of new technologies that allow airlines to react quickly to ever-changing situations, including crew legality, weather, and airport traffic congestion. IT solutions help airlines optimize activities in real time as the operational environment changes. Mobile solutions that connect applications that assist baggage handlers, gate agents, caterers, fuel providers, and passengers on the ground will become more important as airlines strive to reduce flight disruptions and maximize airplane utilization to gain the greatest return on their investment.
IT infrastructure and connectivity can present challenges in developing economies. As these challenges are resolved, a greater number of airlines in developing economies will enter the market for IT solutions. The resultant improvements in operational efficiency, safety, and cost will allow carriers in these regions to compete more effectively with larger global carriers.
Original equipment manufacturers, regulators, and IT vendors must work together to better understand the risk of cyber attacks and develop solutions that reduce the risk. As airports, airplanes, and airlines become more connected, security risks increase. Airlines will seek integrated, robust, secure, and connected mobile solutions for application throughout their operations.
Our long-term forecast considers how other technologies, such as high-speed rail (HSR), affect air travel. Railways are well suited for carrying passengers and cargo over relatively short distances (terrain permitting), whereas aviation excels for longer journeys. In addition, aviation is effective for creating large transportation networks without heavy investment in ground infrastructure.
In 2007, the world's first privately run HSR line, developed under a build-operate-transfer model, started operating in Taiwan. Even with an annual ridership of more than 40 million passengers, the HSR is heavily in debt. Taiwan's government is looking into recapitalizing and possibly nationalizing the private business venture. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, China has seen tremendous HSR network growth. By the end of 2013, nearly 10,000 kilometers of HSR network was in operation in China, more than in the rest of the world combined. Yet according to Boeing analysis, only a handful of shorter air routes have ceased operations or reduced seat capacity significantly. The overall impact of HSR on aviation is estimated to be less than 1 percent of China's pre-HSR domestic aviation capacity.
HSR could compete with some airlines in high-volume, high-yield markets. Yet the relatively short routes where HSR excels represent only a small portion of the market that commercial aviation serves. Airline assets are highly flexible because airplanes can easily be redeployed to more lucrative markets. In addition, the infrastructure investment for a comprehensive aviation network is much lower than for ground modes of transport. Aviation's network connectivity simply cannot be replicated by ground-based modes. Opportunities to develop intermodal solutions have the potential to combine the advantages of HSR and aviation.