This future vision of air travel may feel like mere fantasy. But with today's 3 billion passengers a year expected to quintuple by 2052, the only option is rethinking air travel from the ground up. One visionary is Ruben Del Rosario, manager of the NASA Subsonic Fixed Wing Project. His team is exploring aircraft that blend wings and body into a single, unbroken structure that reduces aerodynamic drag, cutting fuel costs and emissions. Crucially, the expanded body would allow the cabin to be less like a tube and more like an amphitheater, Del Rosario says. Boeing's unmanned three-engine X-48B resembles a manta ray with a 20-foot wingspan. The first phase of testing was completed in 2010.
To meet Defense Department goals for decreasing drag, Airbus suggests partially embedded engines into the main vehicle body. The engines would be built into the the top of the plane near the rear to shield people on the ground from noise.
Computerized planes would largely fly themselves; pilots could oversee matters using spoken commands and touch screens, enabling them to absorb and respond to information more rapidly than if they had to flip switches or hit keys.