Over the last century, the aviation industry has steadily pushed ahead with bold new designs
. But with a shift toward more incremental improvements, the airplanes of tomorrow will look a lot like the airplanes of today.
The airlines aren't standing still, but are refitting older craft with new fuel-efficient engines, updated wings, and other improvements."You do not need to do a new program to develop these new technologies," Ray Conner, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in an interview for www.cnet.com. "You're able to take the things you create and bring them to other aircraft, to develop a really good airplane that meets the market needs."
The trend toward incremental change means that passengers hoping for a significantly better flying experience and aviation buffs excited by the latest technology should probably rein in their hopes.
But shareholders can take heart: incremental improvements are a lower-risk course of action than developing all-new designs like Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which was supposed to arrive in 2008 but actually took until 2011.
Even with less reliance on dramatic new designs, Airbus and Boeing have huge numbers of orders to fulfill as Asian airlines boom and all airlines struggle with high fuel prices."There's a seven-year backlog without even taking new orders," said Ben Moores , a senior analyst with IHS Jane's for www.cnet.com. "You're going to see a doubling of wide-body production over the next several years."
That's why the industry is focusing on faster production and updates to existing designs rather than new jets that are costly to design, test, and bring to market.
Incremental improvements need not be insignificant. For example, the 777X, due in 2020, will acquire innovations that came with the 787 Dreamliner. That includes new composite wings instead of traditional aluminum designs; a tail assembly that uses new, more aerodynamic materials; bigger windows; and a more comfortable, higher interior air pressure.
Much of the 777X will be the same as the current 777, though, and many of the changes coming in future years are less significant."The A330 is just an engine change," Conner said. "The 787 Max is an engine change. The A320 is a new engine."