"Fifteen years ago nobody could afford to fly constantly. Today people can fly," said Ingrid Joerg, a senior vice president for Cleveland-based Aleris, which rolls out aluminum skins for major aircraft manufacturers. "The global mobility that has happened to a large extent has been because prices have dropped for passengers."
The company recently opened a plant in China to serve the growing Asian market and is constantly adjusting its alloys for lighter weight, but few passengers — or even pilots — are going to pick up on the subtleties between one aluminum hull and another.
A few more might notice the potential in a new way for airplanes to taxi to and from their gate, developed by engineering conglomerate Honeywell and aerospace and defense company Safran. Currently, jet engines are used — making taxiing noisy and fuel-guzzling, and preventing airplanes from backing up. That's why they are often towed.
The Electric Green Taxiing System instead uses the plane's auxiliary engine, which provides a plane with electricity while the main engines are off, to power the wheels. Taxiing is quieter and more fuel efficient and makes the plane much more maneuverable. For passengers, it means no more waiting for a tow.
Some of the technologies developed to put fighter jets at the vanguard are now coming to private jets and may eventually make their way onto commercial flights.
Flying in a Gulfstream is about as far from the commercial travel experience as possible. Windows are bigger. Beds, couch and wireless network come standard, as does the ability to use a single mobile app to control the lights, shades, temperature and televisions. The latest model from the Savannah, Ga., company flies at Mach .9 — just shy of the speed of sound — and is the fastest civilian plane approved for travel, according to Steve Cass, the company's vice president for communications.
The new plane shaved about an hour off the trans-Atlantic flight to Paris from the company's headquarters compared to a commercial jetliner.
"Their business model is a lot different," Cass said of commercial travel. The commercial airline "business is to transport people from Point A to Point B at the lowest cost."
Cabin pressure inside most commercial jets is the equivalent of standing at the top of an 8,000-foot mountain — hearts work harder, breathing speeds up. It's the equivalent of a low-level workout for the duration of the flight.
Private aircraft like the Gulfstream cabin have been taking altitude artificially lower for around 15 years — cutting back on fatigue, lessening the effects of jet lag. The most recent Boeing and Airbus models have adopted the technology — a subtle change but one that travelers crossing an ocean might notice after a few hours in the air.
"You don't get the puffy hands, the puffy feet," Cass said.
Other tangible changes may eventually come from composite materials, said McCluskey of the Czech manufacturer, even though most planes are made of aluminum and will continue to be for years to come.
Composites allow for longer panels — rather than the small ones, riveted together that are seen are many aluminum planes — and that means fewer pieces that need to be connected. Planes made from composites should also be able to stay in service longer because the new materials withstand damage better. Fewer pieces and longer in-service times mean cheaper construction — and that will allow manufacturers to play more.
"In the world we live in today, constrained by all the economics that we have, the money is just not there anymore," said McCluskey. "So it's step by step, and the steps are slower unfortunately."
There hasn't been what innovators call a "disruptive technology" since the Concorde, and the idea of supersonic mass travel has faded away with the end of that program in 2003. The only future possibilities would be for commercial flight to go either electric or ballistic — literally exit the Earth's atmosphere like a missile and come down somewhere else on the globe, said Gerard Feldzer, an aerospace analyst who once led the French air and space museum at Le Bourget.
It's a long way off, he acknowledged.
"Right now we're not looking for speed, we're looking for economy."