Today's challenges extend beyond the plane itself. Inconvenient airports, security lines, and delayed takeoffs obliterate the speed advantages of flying. No surprise, then, that for trips under 250 miles, air travel has declined some 45 percent since 2000. Customers have been reduced to clamoring for an Airline Passenger Bill of Rights that mandates potable water, ventilation, and working toilets during grounded flights. But engineers and planners are conceiving more dramatic fixes. Airports of 2052 could emphasize relaxation and play, with minimal waiting and few checkpoints.
As the global movement of people and products grows, the airport of 2052 would take on the role of self-contained urban center. Pointing the way is South Korea's sprawling new Inchon Airport, which has its own casino, spa, and 72-hole golf course. The designer of Inchon's main terminal, Curtis Fentress, notes that for years airport design was mostly just "decorating the hangar." He foresees a time when quieter planes, possibly designed to take off and land vertically, will allow airports to sprout in traditional downtowns; this whimsical image shows some of the features suggested by Stanford University engineers and Fentress Architects. "What was grand about historical train stations is that they symbolically said, 'Welcome!' " Fentress notes. An airport should do the same.
Improvements to airports won't just make airports more pleasant but also more efficient. Terminal gates may be closer together, like train station platforms, eliminating long hikes for passengers. To make this possible, Boeing has looked to the design of aircraft carrier jets in hopes of building planes with fold-up wings. And Siemens is testing high-speed luggage conveyors that zip from floor to floor, shortening connection times and bringing bags to passengers upon arrival. GPS-enabled ID tags will let people track their luggage.
Once air traffic control finally dumps radar for GPS (a long-overdue change), planes in flight would no longer have to stay miles apart. Precise positioning would let pilots customize flight routes according to conditions, instead of joining airborne queues or circling ad nauseam.