Remember the last time a new airplane design got people really jazzed about flying?
Perhaps not—it was a half-century ago, after all, that Boeing debuted the double-decker 747, which, along with the supersonic Concorde, helped to redefine the way we traveled in the 1970s and beyond. About 20 years ago, Airbus seized the “world’s largest” crown from Boeing with its gargantuan A380, but more recently that plane lost ground to smaller wide-bodies, prompting Airbus to cease production at the end of 2021.
But as air travel recovers, airlines and aircraft manufacturers are coming up with new models, plus new features on existing ones (such as expanded premium economy sections and improved fuel efficiency) that might make fliers feel good, heck even excited, about boarding a plane again. Here are some of the airplanes making a comeback or scheduled to debut that travelers should watch.
More comfort in coach on the Airbus A220
A plane that seats between 100 and 150 passengers on bread-and-butter domestic runs doesn’t sound like a game-changer, but a growing number of fans say the Airbus A220 is just that. Why? It’s got seats that are around 18.5 inches wide and a two-by-three seating layout—unlike the typical narrowbody three-by-three configuration and standard seat width of 17 inches. More windows (two per row on each side of the plane) and spacious overhead bins are also adding to the jet’s popularity.
Delta and JetBlue are flying the A220 on dozens of domestic routes this year, and Breeze Airways, the new low-cost airline from JetBlue founder David Neeleman, has placed a significant order for up to 80 aircraft. The A220 also guzzles less fuel than other regional jets, so airlines may be more willing to bet on new routes with the aircraft as they all strive to meet ambitious emission reduction goals. And with longer range capabilities, there’s a possibility for short transatlantic hops, too.
Boeing’s 777X succeeds the 747
When the bulbous-nosed Boeing 747 effectively flew off into aviation history, the question for many fliers was: What’s next for Boeing?
Enter the 777X, which the plane-maker says is a worthy heir to that legacy. It is billed as the largest jet in the world that can operate with only two engines and as such, is far more economical to operate than either the four-engine 747 or the A380.
Promoted by Boeing as the biggest and best of the whole 777 product line, the “X” model can carry between 384 and 426 passengers in a multi-class layout. And while it lacks that distinctive hump, it does have one unusual feature—a unique, folding wing that bends up at a right angle so the jet can squeeze into tight airport gates. Additionally, passengers will notice such features as a wider cabin, dimmable windows, and plus-size overhead bins.
At least eight airlines, including Ana, Emirates, Qatar, and Lufthansa, have ordered the jet, which was originally set to launch into service in 2020. But Boeing’s ongoing woes, beginning with the 737 Max crashes and subsequent grounding in 2019, have delayed the rollout, now expected for some time in 2023.
The Airbus A380 makes a comeback
One of the more surprising recent developments is the return of the A380, which only a few years ago was being written off by industry-watchers as out of step with industry trends that favored smaller aircraft on shorter nonstop routes connecting secondary hubs. That’s not to say it didn’t have its fans. Operators like Emirates and Singapore took advantage of the plane’s unique full-length upper deck to add over-the-top amenities like cocktail lounges and showers for top-paying passengers. But even before the pandemic hit, its moment had (seemingly) passed, with more airlines opting for wide-body planes in the 250–300 seat range rather than the larger A380, which can theoretically carry up to 853 passengers in an all-coach layout, although most airlines offer a seat range of 400 to 600.
Now, the world’s biggest airlines are reclaiming their A380s from desert parking lots where they’ve been sitting for nearly two years and are integrating some new passenger-pleasing touches to boot.
For example, Singapore Airlines plans to restore its A380 service to the New York (JFK) market, starting on March 27, with service to Changi via Frankfurt. (It’s also flying the big bird between Singapore and London.) The carrier is using the opportunity to redesign the interior with six new first-class suites—semiprivate cabins with both single and double beds. It also features 78 business-class seats upstairs, which can be combined to create fully flat double beds, plus a 44-seat premium economy section on the main deck.
While it might seem counterintuitive—as of early 2022, international travel has far from fully recovered and many borders remain closed—the airline’s executives say that a high-end product will bring back consumers. “After nearly two years of restrictions, we’re seeing tremendous demand for international travel, including premium class,” Joey Seow, Singapore’s regional vice president for the Americas, said in a statement.
Emirates, the largest A380 operator with more than 100 in its fleet, has brought some out of mothballs and is equipping a portion of them with its new premium economy seats. The planes are flying to London Heathrow, New York’s JFK International Airport, and other major international hubs.
British Airways is also restoring some A380 flights and Qantas this month returned the jet to nonstop service between Sydney and Los Angeles (although U.S. visitors won’t be allowed onboard for nonessential travel: they are still barred from entering Australia due to the country’s strict pandemic protocols).
The Airbus A321XLR, a super-long-range narrowbody
How long will passengers tolerate sitting on a narrowbody plane? Some airlines are betting it could be up to 10 hours—that is, if you happen to be sitting on an Airbus A321XLR (the XLR stands for extra-long range). Described by the plane-maker as offering the equivalent of “long-haul widebody comfort” in a smaller frame, it boasts wider seats and larger overhead bins.
When it launches next year, the A321XLR will be able to fly nonstop up to about 5,400 miles, or 1,000 miles more than the 737 and other single-aisle models. That’s because it has a third fuel tank, giving it enough gas for twice the flying time of similarly sized planes. With cutting-edge engines and other technological advances, Airbus claims a 30 percent reduction in fuel burn per seat, putting it on a par with the most efficient wide-bodies.
In addition to Middle East Airlines, the launch customer, European carriers such as Aer Lingus and Iberia are considering flying the jet over the Atlantic from East Coast gateways like Boston and New York to European cities such as Dublin and Madrid (the pandemic created some uncertainty about the orders). U.S. customers include American Airlines and JetBlue—the latter recently launched flights to London with the shorter-range “LR” model and could use the newer jet to go farther into Europe if it eventually decides to go that route.
The heir to the Concorde throne—Boom Supersonic
While it may be further off in the future, a return to faster-than-sound travel would certainly get travelers’ pulses racing. Boom, a Denver-based startup, is aiming to begin test flights of its Overture aircraft as early as 2025, and it recently partnered with United Airlines, which has pledged $3 billion for an initial order of 15 Boom Supersonic planes. The aircraft would fly at nearly twice the speed of sound, Mach 1.7, but will likely be limited to subsonic speeds (under 700 miles per hour) over land.
Boom promises to make it a pleasant ride, with each passenger getting an oversized window, but as with the Concorde, the ability to fly long distances in half the time will be the biggest draw. And unlike its predecessor’s sky-high fares (which soared well above first-class pricing), Boom claims it will be able to charge a more down-to-earth airfare closer to what you would expect for business class.