A Seat in the Cockpit

While NASA tries to reach Mach 10, passenger jet manufacturers are trying to make movie headsets that actually work.

A Seat in the Cockpit

On Course

A St Louis group interested in promoting space tourism put up a $5-million prize to the first de­sign team to launch a spaceship carrying three adults at least 62 miles high, and then be able to do it all again within two weeks. One of the 20-odd entrants is Burt Rutan, with a design called Proteus, that is already flying. Based on his resume, I’d put my money on Burt

All kidding aside, jet makers continue to press technology to the limit in making larger airplanes that will carry more people at a lower fuel cost than other jets have been able to manage.

The first of the “jumbo jets,” the Boeing 747, took the world by storm. When it was rolled out of the hangar in 1969, skeptics were sure a plane that big would fall out of the sky. Over the years, the 747 has grown even larger, and now a fully loaded late-model Jumbo weighs 875,000 pounds and can carry 568 passengers—though, at that capacity, not many of them will be flying in comfort.

Especially in its earliest days in passenger service, the 747 was a cruise ship in the sky. First-class passengers could climb a spiral staircase to an elegantly appointed upper level. In-flight movies, personal music systems—these became part of flying in a Boeing 747.

Now, the 747’s top spot among the behemoths of the sky is being challenged by Airbus Industrie, a European consortium with a “we try harder” attitude. Airbus is preparing to roll out a model it calls 3XX—a two-level jetliner that will carry 555 passengers in comfort. That’s less than the latest Boeing 747 can carry, but the 3XX-200 will be coming along right behind. It will be able to carry 656 passengers.

The future of jetliners, in the near future at least, seems to be pointing toward larger and larger planes with better and better safety features, although a single crash of one of these sky-ships could potentially be as deadly as the worst aviation disaster ever—when two 747s from Pan Am and KLM Airlines collided on the ground in Tenerife in 1977, killing 582 people.

But let’s look on the bright side. Jetliners of the future will be connected to the Internet using satellite feeds, and the technologies now being developed to speed up the Internet will replace the golf magazines flight attendants pass out now with video and music on demand—for a price, of course.

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