Airliners of the Future May Sport Some Very Unusual Designs

Next time you spot an airliner flying overhead, consider that it would have looked virtually the same back in 1960. But the shape of planes to come could see a dynamic shift over the next 20 years.

Almost every commercial jetliner, from the first Boeing 707 to the jumbo 747 and the superjumbo Airbus 380, features the identical tube-and-wing layout: a cigar-shaped fuselage with engines hanging off a pair of wings at the midpoint, and a trio of stabilizers at the tail. Airline-tried and passenger-tested, this arrangement is pretty much how jets have always looked, so it’s no surprise that it’s what today’s designers still consider the best and safest way to fly the friendly skies.

Related: Driving on the Roads of the Future Will Be a Real Trip

As the aviation industry gears up for its next generation of redesigns, the archetypal airframe is showing amazing staying power despite a half-century of astonishing innovation in aerospace technology.

The continuing tenure of these airliners has been aided by the fact that all the world’s airport gates are built to handle its shape. Also crucial is its ease of maintenance, since engines mounted below the wings provide simple access for mechanics. Add in the industry’s cautious approach toward adopting technology — in stages, only after proof and FAA certification — and it’s easy to see why steering away from existing equipment isn’t all that easy.

A Change in the Air

Commercial aircraft operations today account for almost 8 percent of all transportation-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., and over the next 20 years the worldwide fleet is expected to grow by some 36,000 airplanes — costing upwards of $5 trillion — to fulfill worldwide travel demands. The prospect of this unprecedented surge, plus stricter emissions limits and rising fuel costs, could, at last, bring visible changes to the familiar airliner, says James Heidmann, manager of the Advanced Air Transport Technology project at NASA Glenn in Cleveland. This transformation would be the biggest since the jet was introduced in the mid-1950s.

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