Thursday July 13th 2006, 11:45 am

Jose Garcia of Meme Therapy, a future and science fiction blog, asked me to answer the following question: The world’s commercial airline fleet vanishes overnight. What do you replace it with?

My answer is available here.

If the entire fleet of commercial jet aircraft vanishes overnight, it would represent a huge opportunity to rethink aviation transportation in a broad context. Perhaps an investment in networks of high-speed, zero-emission trains, for example, would be viable. Of course, air travel would continue to be a preferred mode of transportation for overseas travel. However, the basic design of commercial jet aircraft hasn’t changed in 35+ years, and an opportunity would exist to entertain innovative ideas. A common design concept for future aircraft is a highly aerodynamic triangular design, which does nothing to address the basic human-centric inefficiencies of current aircraft travel, including airport transport, parking, check-in lines, security hassles, frequent delays, cattle-like boarding methods, and waiting for luggage.

There are people working on personal transport vehicles capable of driving on roads, and flying (see SUV with retractable wings here (link), but I have an additional, possibly complimentary, vision for the future of aircraft mass-transport. Futurists, for many years, have proposed personal rapid transport: a private, light-weight pod-car hybrid would travel on monorails within cities, and exit an elevated monorail network to travel on roads and freeways to suburban areas, or to other cities. My aircraft vision embraces this future. I would propose building jet aircraft that have the capability of holding hundreds of pod-cars per fuselage or body (think of a Swiss train or a Ferry that accommodates cars), so a person or a family could leisurely board their pod-car at home, travel to an airport, pass through security, and board an aircraft — without ever needing to leave the comfort of their pod-car!

Commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe audaciously pushed for larger and larger aircraft, in an effort to reduce the consumer cost of air travel. The future of aviation, however, will likely favor more numerous, smaller aircraft. Air taxis and relatively inexpensive personal business jets, which are currently being developed, will proliferate, in the near future. Perhaps the pod-car aircraft concept would require more aircraft bodies to accommodate the pod-cars, which require more space, for a comparable number of travelers, than current aircraft herd seating. These realities may cause more airport congestion and delays, if we maintain status quo thinking of aircraft physics, which requires a long runway for takeoff and landing. VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) technology for commercial aircraft will likely one day be a feasible reality, and this would alleviate current bottlenecks for takeoff and landing, which will become more of a problem, as aircraft proliferate.

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