From airships to seagliders: how we’ll be flying in the near future

Do you remember the very first time you travelled by air? For many of us, this exciting, mile-high milestone took place during a family holiday. You might recall the destination, and if you’ve got a good memory, the name of the airline too. What’s far less likely to be remembered is the specific aircraft type, and for fairly good reason: aeroplanes have become boring.

In recent decades a wholesale homogenisation has taken place – not least Concorde’s final flight 20 years ago last month – and with a handful of exceptions, it’s out with the original and hello to the humdrum. This is evolution in action, as the safest, most efficient and most profitable jets become dominant. The result is that today, Europe’s Airbus and the US’s Boeing enjoy a near duopoly on how most of us take to the sky. But that could be about to change, and in a big way.

Alongside the wild and wacky flying machines – which are quite literally never going to take off – there is a growing band of increasingly credible new aircraft coming into view. Aside from shaking up the establishment, what makes many of them so interesting is that they promise to make flying easier, cleaner and less stressful.

Lots of recent attention has been focused on so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” (SAF), which can allow existing aircraft engines to be powered in a greener way based on the life cycle of the fuel. However, progress in this area has been painfully slow, with some arguing that we need to leapfrog current technologies to truly fly into the future.

Balloons in the sky

A CGI of Airlander Hybrid Air Vehicles (Photo: Hybrid Air Vehicles)
A CGI of Airlander Hybrid Air Vehicles (Photo: Hybrid Air Vehicles)

Among the most prominent of these new-age options is a next-generation airship. Bedford-based Hybrid Air Vehicles is developing the Airlander 10 as a low, eventually zero-carbon means of air transport. The team behind the enormous aircraft, which maintains altitude using helium and electricity, is aiming to deliver a certified production example by 2027.

The company says its technology will provide a 90 per cent reduction on emissions over current alternatives, but that’s not the only selling point. As the Airlander 10 doesn’t need a traditional runway, it can take to the air from almost anywhere, including on remote sandy plains or even over water, provided there’s a 600-metre-wide open space to accommodate its vast size.

Best of all, its real-world applications aren’t reserved to modern day Phileas Foggs. Last year, Spanish airline group Air Nostrum – which flies regional routes from Spain to Italy, France and Morocco – became the global launch customer with a deal for 10 of the airships, which will each carry up to 100 passengers on short-haul flights. In August, the firm doubled its interest, reserving 20 Airlander 10s for scheduled delivery from 2027.

In time, this could see the dreaded trek to the terminal become a thing of the past. As the airship doesn’t rely on traditional airport infrastructure, it’s possible that holidaymakers could go from the beach to boarding in just a few minutes.

We don’t yet know how fares will compare to traditional flights, but they are likely to be competitive. What’s more certain is that the Airlander won’t fly as quickly as regular planes. It has a top speed of around 80mph, compared to 500mph for comparable jets, but cutting out the airport could still bring overall time savings on certain routes.

Taxis take flight

As anyone who’s experienced the Boulevard Périphérique at rush hour will attest, Parisian roads can be problematic. Traffic is not a challenge unique to the French capital, but with the world descending for the Olympics next summer, concerns have been raised for visitors and locals.

Alongside Métro improvements and car-share schemes, one company has an innovative transport solution: the flying taxi. It might sound like something from The Jetsons, but German firm Volocopter has set its eyes on next year’s tournament to launch its potentially game-changing aircraft.

At the Paris Air Show in June, the German company and self-described “pioneer of urban air mobility” confirmed it will offer its electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, known as eVTOLs, in time for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Volocopter CEO Dirk Hoke next to the Volocopter 2X at the Paris Air Show (Photo: AP Photo/Lewis Joly)
Volocopter chief executive Dirk Hoke next to the Volocopter 2X at the Paris Air Show (Photo: AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

At the show, Volocopter’s chief executive Dirk Hoke was flanked by senior representatives from the French Civil Aviation Authority, as well as the operator of the capital’s three main airports. The optics of this were significant: a manufacturer, regulator and infrastructure provider coming together to try and silence the cynics.

Volocopter says operations in Paris will begin from five easy-to-use mini terminals known as “vertiports”, with all regions of the city to be served within a decade. Local critics highlight a lack of regulatory approval, noise concerns and fares that will be out of reach for most Parisians, but if you believe the marketing hype, passengers should be soaring above the Seine next summer.

Skimming the water

Even the humble ferry could be in line for an aeronautical glow-up. Brittany Ferries, a major operator of cross-Channel services, has signed an eye-catching deal for an innovative new “seaglider”. The high-speed alternative is all-electric and currently under development at Boston-based firm Regent (Regional Electric Ground Effect Nautical Transport).

A CGI of Brittany Ferries' 'Normandie' alongside a seaglider (Photo: Brittany Ferries/PA wire)
A CGI of Brittany Ferries’ Normandie alongside a seaglider (Photo: Brittany Ferries/PA wire)

According to the US company, its seagliders “combine the convenience of ferries with the comfort of hydrofoils, the aerodynamic efficiency of hovercraft and the speed of aircraft”. With only modest upgrades needed to existing ferry ports, the machines will be able to fly at speeds of up to 180mph – six-times faster than conventional sea crossings. The voyage from Portsmouth to Cherbourg could take just 40 minutes.

The technology centres around a cushion of high-pressure air trapped between the seaglider’s wings and the water while flying at low altitude. Following departure from a port, the craft rises on foils – hopefully insulating passengers from wave discomfort. In open water, the vehicle takes off, riding this special air cushion towards its destination.
The quirky concept could see such a craft carrying up to 150 passengers between the English south coast and northern France by 2028.