Though it may have lacked the drama that accompanied takeoff at Kitty Hawk a century ago, a recent flight in the skies above Shanghai still marked a historic moment in aviation. On May 5 a plane called the C919 circled the city for an hour, with just five crew members aboard. The 168-seat jet is the first large commercial aircraft manufactured in China—its challenge to popular models from giants Boeing and Airbus. That first public test flight heralded the rise of Asia, and China in particular, in a radically evolving aviation industry.
Asia is home to nine of the world’s ten most popular flights, and while air travel is booming around the world, it’s expected to soar exponentially in the region. That brings both unprecedented opportunities and challenges, and how airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and governments tackle them will change how the world flies.
The growth will generate countless new routes and require hundreds of new airports and thousands of new planes and pilots. Such a dramatic increase in flight would also be accompanied by a surge in greenhouse gases linked to climate change, so the industry is doubling down on efforts to improve fuel efficiency and curb emissions.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in 2016 there were a staggering 3.8 billion air travelers, a number it predicts will balloon to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035—a near doubling of current levels. Most of this boost in traffic will come from the Asia-Pacific region (which includes Asia, Australia, and New Zealand), with China set to overtake the U.S. as the largest aviation market in the world around 2024 and India set to displace the U.K. for third place around 2025.
In its own two-decade forecast, U.S. airplane manufacturer Boeing projects that worldwide demand for aircraft will top 39,000 planes in the next 20 years—of those, over 15,000 will be headed to Asian markets.
“China is now the first trillion-dollar aviation market in our forecast,” says Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing at Boeing.
Three factors are putting more passengers in planes. “The first is the expansion of economies and the rise in incomes in Asia and Africa,” says IATA’s David Oxley.
While the proportion of middle-income households compared to the overall population in these nations is much smaller than those found in more mature economies, the absolute numbers are still enormous. The upsurge in middle-class households in major nations like China and India in particular is “pulling people into air travel,” says Oxley.
Cheaper airfares, thanks to both more efficient planes and competition, are also making flying more accessible. IATA forecasts that the average roundtrip airfare (before surcharges and taxes) in 2017 will be $351—63 percent lower than airfares in 1995, adjusting for inflation.
That’s partly attributable to the aggressive growth of low-cost airlines, especially in Asia, which is home to several of the world’s largest budget carriers, including AirAsia, Jetstar Asia, and Cebu Pacific.
Millennials are also behind the travel boom. “People of working ages tend to fly most often,” says Oxley. “Countries whose populations are young and expanding quickly are projected to have the fastest-growing aviation markets.”
Though travelers from China are likely to stick to Asian destinations for the coming decade, Oxley predicts surges in travel to North America and Europe as well.
Based on their sheer numbers and their purchasing power, travelers from China are wooed by city and country tourism offices as well as retail destinations like Harrod’s and Printemps. In 2016 there were 135 million outbound international Chinese travelers, and they spent $261 billion on tourism abroad, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, solidifying the nation’s ranking as the top travel market in the world in terms of spending, a title it's held since 2012.
While growth in mature markets like Europe and North America will be more incremental, with existing passengers flying more, China, India, and Indonesia will see more first-time fliers. Either way, that translates into demand for new planes, as established markets upgrade aging fleets and emerging markets grow their flight networks. Boeing has pushed production on its 737 line, which now completes 42 aircraft per month, but is expected to release 57 per month by 2019.
Oxley also pointed to the advent of next-generation, fuel-efficient long-haul jets like the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 that make lower volume routes such as Beijing to Madrid or Dallas to Seoul more viable, allowing airlines to offer more direct routes between more city pairs.
Geography has naturally defined the new routes that have emerged. Delta now looks to Asia in the form of a relatively new hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, more than tripling the flights and destinations to which it flies from there since 2012.
(Check out Seattle-Tacoma in our gallery of innovative airports.)
And though it’s not a major hub, another West Coast city, San Jose, California, also has non-stop flights to major centers in Asia, including Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai—all launched within the last few years.
“For China in particular,” says Mark Kiehl, service development director at Mineta San Jose International Airport, “we’re basically Silicon Valley’s airport. Apple, Google, and Facebook’s offices are all closer to us than to San Francisco.” And, as Kiehl points out, over 500 Silicon Valley companies have a presence in China, creating a distinct economic link.
“There is a very large Chinese ethnic population here,” he says. “While that certainly drives a lot of business travel, it also brings a lot of tourism and family travel as well, and you need all of those elements to make a flight route prosper.”
To establish those routes, destinations and even airports themselves lobby major airlines, sometimes for years, highlighting economic ties between a city and an airline’s hubs, in hopes of boosting both tourism and business.
Getting in on the tourist trade, Hainan Airlines launched service between Beijing and Las Vegas in December. Several Florida tourism boards, including those in Miami, Orlando, and Tampa, are reportedly courting Chinese airlines to begin flights to the three cities as China’s share of visitors to the state increases.
Meanwhile, the world’s busiest airline route for the last several years running happens to be a short hop within South Korea, from Seoul Gimpo Airport to Jeju on Jejudo Island, a popular leisure destination. Total capacity on that route was around 15.2 million seats in 2016, IATA estimates.
With a rugged volcanic landscape, the island is sometimes referred to as the Hawaii of South Korea. Visitors can trek through ancient underground lava tubes with spectacular rock formations. Beaches and hiking trails come alive with wildflowers in the spring. Jeju is also home to Korea’s tallest mountain, Hallasan, which holds a crater lake. Although around 70 percent of the visitors are domestic, Chinese travelers now flock here as well, thanks to the island’s casinos. (Casinos are not allowed in mainland China.)
With a touch of celebrity, unexpected destinations can suddenly become fashionable. After Chinese actress Yao Chen wed in a church outside Queenstown, New Zealand, in 2012, it was a boon for the city. Tens of thousands of Chinese couples have since either married or honeymooned there. Just last year, over 50,000 Chinese made their way to the small town in a single week over the Chinese New Year in February.
Even Maine, where Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan took a much publicized vacation last month, could get a bump in Chinese tourism as a result, predicted a tour operator who handles Chinese group tours in New England.
Airlines are also capitalizing on the burgeoning markets of Asia with strategic investments. Most recently, American Airlines announced a $200 million buy for a 2.68 percent stake in Guangzhou-based carrier China Southern. The airline is the largest by passenger numbers in China, and the move represents a major strategy shift to connect Chinese passengers with American’s far-reaching route network within the U.S.
In 2015 Delta Air Lines purchased a $450 million stake in China Eastern Airlines, which is based out of Shanghai, China’s business capital.
“Demand for customers traveling from China to the U.S. is stronger than it has ever been, and travel between the two countries is projected to grow more than twice the global average, becoming the largest international travel market from the U.S. in the next few years,” says Vinay Dube, Delta’s senior vice president of Asia-Pacific.
The partnership has expanded to include codeshare flights, on which Delta fliers can connect to around 40 domestic destinations within China.
With that imminent air traffic as well as travel trends both foreseen and not, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, airports, and governments—in short, the entire aviation industry—face new challenges.
The most pressing is how to prevent a doubling in air traffic from doubling the environmental impact of air travel in the coming decades. Discussions and proposals had been under way for years, when, last October, 68 countries whose air traffic comprises nearly 90 percent of international aviation signed on to the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
Put forward by the International Civil Aviation Organization—part of the United Nations—CORSIA is a statement of intention to achieve carbon-neutral growth, starting as early as 2021, with 2020 levels as the baseline. In other words, in the years beyond 2020, emissions would remain capped at 2020 levels, with gradual changes that can vary from country to country in order to account for unique circumstances, including the needs of developing markets.
CORSIA will operate through the trading of emission “units,” a type of carbon commodity market. So while in theory aviation growth would be “carbon neutral,” that could be achieved through declines in CO2 emissions in other sectors rather than through those made directly in aviation.
Climate change aside, airlines and plane manufacturers have another reason to keep their emissions low: cost. More carbon emissions are the result of higher fuel consumption. Lower fuel consumption, and airlines will see higher profit margins.
“Fuel,” says Sean Newsum, Boeing’s director of environmental strategy, “constitutes somewhere from 30 to 40 percent of an airline’s typical operating costs.”
The design of an aircraft itself can add up to significant fuel savings. Boeing tests new technologies on full-scale planes called ecoDemonstrators in order to deploy them on next-generation models.
Newsum described a study undertaken with NASA to streamline the airflow over a vertical stabilizer, the part on the back of the plane resembling a fin, that might eventually result in smaller tails that create less drag—and thus less fuel burned.
While fliers are not likely to see the results of that trial for years to come, one they might notice with the launch of Boeing’s 737MAX is a new type of winglet, another device that reduces drag and enhances aerodynamics. Existing 737s already have either upward winglets or those that sprout from both above and below the wing, called split scimitar winglets. The 737MAX features an advanced and larger type, which Newsum estimates could improve efficiency by up to two percent, representing potentially immense savings over the lifetime of a plane.
Technological leaps in data and communications also promise to make air and ground operations more efficient. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is rolling out the next-generation air-traffic management system. So-called NextGen will replace the country’s outdated radar-based system, which still uses radio communications, with a satellite-based system that taps GPS technology instead.
A satellite-based system allows for faster and more detailed communications between air-traffic control and pilots over much greater distances and more varied terrain, cutting down on the time it takes to make decisions in the air. The system’s accuracy also translates into more direct routing between departure and arrival, and fewer altitude and speed adjustments during ascent and descent in the skies above busy airports. That equates to huge time savings in the air and fuel burn on every flight. Under NextGen’s superior precision, the process known as aircraft spacing is also more effective, alleviating some airspace congestion and increasing traffic capacity at airports.
Components of the system are already in use at 55 U.S. airports, with further elements of the program to come online in the next few years.
Airlines, governments, and companies like Boeing have also made advances in developing new sources of biofuel and mainstreaming their use in the industry.
“Biofuels represent huge potential reductions of between 50 to 80 percent of the lifetime carbon emission of both existing and future aircraft,” says Newsum. The company is involved in several projects around the world in an effort to make biofuels more viable.
One began in 2013, when Boeing partnered with South African Airways and low-cost carrier Mango as well as industrial research and development company Sunchem. Sunchem developed a nicotine-free “energy tobacco” strain called Solaris, and grew it in South Africa’s Limpopo province. Oil harvested from the plants was refined into biofuel, then blended with conventional fuel and used to power several passenger flights on the two airlines’ 737-800s between Johannesburg and Cape Town in July 2016, demonstrating its potential.
“We’re on the cusp of having large volume of sustainable aviation biofuel for use at competitive prices in the relative near-term,” says Newsum. He pointed to a current estimate that worldwide biofuel production capacity has hit about one billion gallons. If approved for use in commercial aviation, it would account for over one percent of the industry’s fuel consumption, both in the air and in ground operations.
One percent might not sound significant, but the future of aviation is a path of incremental changes that could eventually add up to evolutionary strides. “We’re going to continue working with governments, fuel producers, airlines—any interested stakeholder,” says Newsum, “to help bring the real, full-scale, widespread use of biofuels to the aviation industry.”
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This article is part of our Urban Expeditions series, an initiative made possible by a grant from United Technologies to the National Geographic Society.