What does the future of aviation look like?

Modern air travel is now so streamlined that even when traversing the longest distances, it’s little more than a minor inconvenience. Naturally, this has created huge demand from consumers, which airlines are more than happy to meet.

Of course, they require the help of aerospace manufacturers when it comes to ensuring that the huge inflation in passenger numbers is met with enough aircraft to carry them. However, when you

Commercial aircraft designs have remained relatively uniform.

consider the average commercial plane, little has changed over the last half a century.

They still consist of a long cylinder with wings attached either side. That description does a disservice to the strides the industry has made in safety, efficiency and noise pollution, but there can be little denying that designs have remained relatively uniform.

Even groundbreaking aircraft such as the double-decker Airbus A380, or composite-constructed Boeing 787 don’t really depart from the norm of what the rest of the aviation industry has followed for several years.

However, is the future of air travel bright? And will the skies be filled with fascinating new designs and innovative technologies? Well, the answer depends on how long of a timeline you’re willing to look along.

The future is streamlined

The Advanced Hybrid Engine Aircraft Development (AHEAD) project is one body of research that’s seeking out ways to effectively predict the future. The study is being carried out by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, as well as a number of companies with commercial and technical interests in the aviation sector.

One of those airlines is KLM​, which has played a relatively big role in the design of the proposed aircraft of the future. The shape of the aircraft may look odd to the average air trave​ller, as it is effectively a ‘blended-wing’ design that has barely featured in the commercial space.

In a recent blog post, KLM explained that it wanted to get in on the AHEAD project so it could better align its practicality needs with the concepts of designers. In nearly every sector, designers can come up with mind-bending ideas that are beautiful when rendered in design software, but have very little chance of actually being produced.

KLM recognised this discrepancy and wanted to give the designers involved in the AHEAD project more freedom, while ensuring the drawing board aligned with real-life operations as closely as possible.

Consequently, the design may one day be rolling off production lines across the globe, but it could take some time. In fact, the AHEAD project is set out on a timeline that stretches all the way to 2050.

The globalisation of aircraft manufacturing

While the AHEAD project may not come to fruition until 2050, the need for better, bigger and more efficient planes is evident in the here and now. In fact, research collated by Boeing and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) suggested that between 2013 and 2032, there will be global demand for some 35,280 commercial jet aircraft, worth a staggering US$4.8 trillion.

Thirty per cent of world’s commercial aircraft production will be based in Asia Pacific by 2032.

How are those orders going to be fulfilled? Well, in short, thanks to globalisation. The manufacturing and design of the majority of today’s commercial airliners is centred on both North America and Europe. However, that could be set to change.

A number of countries across the Asia-Pacific region are making waves in the sector. Using a specific example, the constant development of the Chinese economy now means that it is entering sectors in which it had little interest before.

In total, according to the PwC and Boeing figures, 30 per cent of the commercial aircraft pushed for production by 2032 will be completed in Asia Pacific.

Driven by consumer needs

While developments in manufacturing and design hold the potential to make airlines more profitable, what will the average air passenger get from the experience?

Airbus is one airline looking to better understand what the travel​lers of today are looking for, in order to give them a better experience tomorrow. In fact, the company has been collating data annually since 2010.

The airline’s research suggested that the majority of customers (66 per cent) want quieter planes, while many are now aware of the impact that air travel has on the environment, and explained that they would like future aircraft to be more ‘eco-efficient’.


Naturally, meeting the needs of the airlines and their passengers will fall on designers across the aviation sector. While some have certainly made progress in the use of composite materials and other innovations, truly groundbreaking strides seem to be few and far between in the industry.

However, if the AHEAD project in particular proves successful, future designers of commercial aircraft may have a relative blank slate on which they can let their imaginations run free.

Designing or manufacturing for the aviation industry? Contact us at SOLIDWORKS to see how we can help inspire engineering innovation and improve every aspect of your product development.