Who among us has not stared up at the sky at the sound of a passing jet plane? It is something that is bred into us: the need to fly and escape the bounds of Earth. Many of us have actually flown on an airplane, getting from Point A to Point B faster than people ever did before. The airplane is a marvellous invention, and it has come a long way over the decades that it has been around.
But have you ever thought about what an airplane was like 20 years ago (around 1998) versus today (2018)? You probably have not thought about the changes that have been made to the airplanes themselves, although you have probably noticed some changes to the flight experience.
If you have ever wondered what changes have been made to airplanes over the last two decades, and how those changes have impacted the world of air travel, then take a look at this list of twenty items that examines multiple facets and aspects of how the changes to airplane technology have morphed the world of flying.
Even if you are just a curious observer of airplanes, you are sure to find something that piques your interest in airplanes and their technology. So, fasten your seat belt low, and prepare for takeoff as we look at 20 changes to airplanes over the last 20 years.
20 In-Flight Entertainment
Twenty years ago, in-flight entertainment consisted of plugging a tube into a socket on your seat and cycling through a couple of music channels and the cockpit voice feed. If you were lucky, you could watch a movie on your longer flight across the country. Now, in-flight entertainment has evolved quite a bit. Today, your options include a number of television channels and movies, as well as music. All of this is brought to you by satellite communication link. The advances in communication technology have moved airplane in-flight entertainment to the point that you are practically sitting in an armchair at home watching the evening news.
19 777 vs 787
In 1998 the most advanced plane in the sky was the Boeing 777. This plane tested the limits of airplane innovation and technology. It featured advanced computers and control systems that allowed the plane to practically fly itself. Boeing had really outdone themselves when they introduced the 777 twenty-something years ago. However, today, Boeing's flagship plane is the 787, or Dreamliner.
This plane really outdoes even the technology of the 777. With advanced composite technology and innovations that are redefining airplane technology, the 787 is setting the groundwork for future airplane technology for years to come. Oh, and it looks really cool, too.
18 Seat Space
Back in the late 90s, you could expect to be pretty comfortable on your plane ride. You could stretch out and even relax on your long haul flight. The seats were pretty comfortable, too, maybe not fine grain leather, but at least soft and nice to sit in. These days, you'll be lucky to squeeze into your seat. Airlines are cutting corners and adding seats. So that means that the seats are less comfortable and there is less space between them on just about every airline you fly.
The good news is that ticket prices are not going up too quickly because more seats means more money for the airline.
17 Size of the Plane
The biggest commercial plane in the skies was the Boeing 747. This gigantic plane has an upper deck and had been flying for decades. Even the President flies on a 747. However, fast forward 20 years and Airbus rules the sky in terms of the biggest plane: the A380. This is a full double decked plane, and is so big that it cannot fly in or out of a lot of airports in the world. Any airport that wants to handle this monster airplane had to go through some pretty major upgrades. Comparing the 747 to the A380 shows how much airplane technology has changed in 20 years.
In 1998 the Internet was still being developed, and no one even thought about sticking it on an airplane flying 30,000 feet in the air. The Internet of 20 years ago consisted of news and email, not videos and e-commerce. Today, the Internet has really become ubiquitous with the world of technology. And you can access the Internet at 30,000 feet while flying over the Pacific Ocean on your way from LA to Tokyo. Today, business people all over the world do not need to stop doing business just because they are on a plane, and your average Joe can watch YouTube videos on their flight.
15 Fuel Economy
Airplanes use jet fuel, and a lot of it, to get from Point A to Point B. As the price of jet fuel rises, jets have needed to become more efficient at using fuel, otherwise it would be too cost prohibitive to fly. So, through a combination of design changes of the planes themselves, and advanced engineering of the engines that power the planes, companies like Boeing and Airbus have succeeded in making airplanes more fuel efficient over the last couple of decades. Good news for passengers: that translates to more flight capability as well as lower ticket prices on those flights.
14 Type of Plane
Back in 1998 there were planes that had not been redesigned or updated for years, if not decades. Today, there are a number of new types of planes out there, flying passengers all over the world. From Boeing's 787 "Dreamliner" to the Airbus A380, new planes have been developed, designed, engineered, built, and are flying on a faster and better scale than ever before.
Of course, there are still a lot of old standbys, which have served as workhorses for decades, but the newer planes are better at what they do, and provide a more advanced flight experience for passengers all over the world.
13 Distance Flown
Twenty years ago, it was not uncommon for an airline to operate flights from the coasts of the United States across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. That meant that if you lived in the middle of the country, you would need to fly to the coast and make a connecting flight to get across to Europe or Asia. However, in today's world it is possible to fly from the middle of the U.S. to points all over Europe - nonstop. It is still a challenge to get to Asia without going first to the West Coast, but the flights from the Western U.S. are getting longer and more capable, as well.
12 Safety Standards
As airplanes have advanced, so too have the safety standards that the planes need to meet. Whether it is as simple as better air circulation in the cabin or as complex as an advanced auto-pilot, the standard for safety on airplanes is pushing the limit of making flights all over the world more safe. It shows, too, as the number of fatal plane crashes has gone down in recent years, and improved safety standards have meant that passengers can expect to get to their destination safely. As things continue to evolve, expect more effective measures to be put into place to continue to make air travel more and more safe.
11 Design Innovations
Technology has advanced rapidly over the last two decades, and the design of airplanes has tried to keep up with those changes. While the basic principles of air travel and airplane engineering have remained the same since the Wright Brothers, new designs for airplanes mean that they are better at fulfilling their goal of getting people to places quickly and efficiently. From higher powered engines to reduced drag on the airplanes, advances in engineering have propelled (literally) airplane technology quite far forward over the last couple of decades. Innovators from around the world continue to work tirelessly to develop new technologies and advances that will keep pushing the envelope and delivering better airplanes.
Ah, mood lighting. There are plenty of times you really want it, and even more times you don't know it is being applied. For example, did you know that many airplanes now offer mood lighting on longer flights? You may not realize it, but airlines are having special colored lights installed in the cabins of airplanes to help passengers "chill" on long flights. The mood lighting is so subtle that you probably did not notice it, but now that you know about it, you will realize it is present every time you board a plane, and you will thank the airline for installing it.
9 Sleeping Berths (Beds)
When you were on an overnight flight twenty years ago, you reclined as much as you could, and still didn't sleep. Well, in upgraded cabins (that is, business and first class), you now have the option on many airlines of a full bed of sorts. Some airlines offer real beds, and other airlines only offer a kind of extended seat.
Either way, airplanes today offer major upgrades when it comes to comfort and accommodation of sleeping passengers. These sleeping berths are going to cost you, but many passengers agree they are well worth the added expense as you will have a real bed.
The manufacturing process of building airplanes has evolved considerably over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago airplanes were manufactured much the same way they were made the previous 20 years. That is to say, things had not changed much. However, in the last two decades, those manufacturing techniques and methods have really changed a lot, which means that today's airplanes are rolling off of the assembly lines faster than ever, and for less cost. Currently, the Boeing 787 is one of the most complex airplanes to build, but Boeing regularly puts out new planes fresh to fly because of advanced manufacturing technologies.
Airplanes were once made of wood. Then they were made of metal. That was twenty years ago. Today, airplanes are made of composites. Composites are advanced aerospace materials that allow the manufacturers to design and build faster, lighter, better planes than ever before. By using composites as their choice of materials, companies like Boeing and Airbus are redefining what an airplane is based on what it is made out of. Sure, some things remain the same, but the use of composite materials in the manufacture of airplanes is growing steadily.
20 years ago was before 9-11, which means that airplane security has gone through some major upgrades in the last two decades. Most of the upgrades to the airplane revolve around the updated cockpit door, designed to keep passengers out of the cockpit. However, there are other security improvements that most people do not know about on the airplanes. All of this is designed to keep the bad people (whoever they may be) from taking down an airplane. And these security upgrades have actually been remarkably effective at doing just that. If you feel safer in an airplane than you did 20 years ago, it is thanks to the innovative upgrades to security.
Cockpits have changed significantly over the last twenty years. A lot of the old airplanes may still have older cockpits, but for the most part, cockpits have been upgraded across the skies to make it easier for pilots to fly the aircraft. With new computers and switches and buttons, the cockpit of today would have seemed like something out of a science fiction movie twenty years ago, just as the Wright Brothers would not recognize the cockpit of 1998. New displays help drive the system that makes the airplane fly through the sky, and allow the pilots to know exactly what is going on at all times aboard their aircraft.
It's called "fly by wire" and it is what flies today's modern airplanes. Sure, it was around 20 years ago as well, but not to the extent that it is available today. Instead of a pilot directly controlling the airplane, like they did twenty years ago, they now control a computer that controls the airplane. It sounds really fancy, but the technology has been around for a long time. However, it was too expensive to put onto every single airplane back 20 plus years ago. Now, it is pretty much a standard "feature" on airplanes all over the world. It makes things safer and better, and for that, we thank the engineers.
It may not be rocket science, but designing an airplane is still a very complex engineering process. The planes that were flying 20 years ago were, mostly, designed with methods in the 1970s - 1980s. That is, by hand. Today's airplanes were designed after 2000, and take advantage of quantum leaps in computer engineering. You know what that means? Today's airplanes are better in just about every way. Not just the new planes, either, but the planes that have been redesigned and upgraded from those old 1980s models. Yes, today's planes are far superior to those 20 years ago thanks to better engineering methods in their design.
We have already touched on some of the aspects related to engines, such as fuel economy and better distance, but we should look at the engines themselves. When it comes to flying an airplane, the jet engine is what moves it forward. Twenty years ago, there had not been any major revolutions in jet engine technology since the 1940s when the jet engine was invented. However, over the last several years, there have been advances which have made it possible for jet engines to better power airplanes in a variety of applications, with a number of benefits. These changes are pushing airplanes forward in more than the literal sense.
1 Relative Lower Cost
20 years ago, airplanes were expensive. We are talking tens of millions of dollars. Today, they are probably more expensive, likely in the hundreds of millions. However, the overall cost of operating an airplane today has gone down thanks to the innovations, advances, and technologies discussed above. All of these things combine to make it more cost effective to operate a brand new airplane from 2018 than one from 1998. Airlines are able to buy more planes, operate more routes, and serve more passengers than ever before thanks to these lower relative costs of owning and operating a new airplane.