Next-gen jets: what's new in the airliners of the future

Next-gen jets: what's new in the airliners of the future

Forget about space-age concept planes and whimsical 'what if' ideas that may never get off the drawing board, let along off the ground.

Before this decade is through we'll be travelling on four very new and very different aircraft compared to today's Airbus A380s, Boeing 747-400s and the usual mix of other planes from Airbus and Boeing.

We've pulled together this rundown of the next-gen jets you'll be flying in the coming years.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

United is likely to be among the first airlines to fly the Dreamliner in our neck of the woods, with Houston-Auckland currently planned.

We'll start with a next-gen jet that's already begun flying, having made its debut with Japan's ANA airlines late last year: Boeing's revolutionary 787 Dreamliner.

What's new

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is the first aircraft made largely out of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic rather than metal.

This decreases the plane's weight to enable higher fuel efficiency, a key factor in airline economy during this era of rising jet fuel prices: Boeing claims the 787 consumes 20 percent less fuel than the similarly-sized Boeing 767.

Improvements on the inside include substantially larger windows with electric tinting instead of blinds; lower air pressure and more moisture in the air so you'll feel better during and after the flight; and even a quieter flight, especially if you're seated near the wing, due to the introduction of noise-reducing chevrons on the engines.

(There's a full wrap in our article on Why business travellers will love the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.)

The Dreamliner is about the size of the older Boeing 767 planes you'll see flying between Australia's largest cities, but a little bit wider. With two engines and two aisles, it's firmly in the "medium-sized' category rather than going up against the Airbus A380.

But while the 787 is geared for international travel Boeing doesn't expect to see first class at the pointy end of its next-gen jetliner: most aircraft will sport only business and economy.

Business class on Qatar Airways' 787s looks like a dream: fully flat beds with direct access to the aisle for everyone.

In fact, several airlines are ordering two seating styles for their 787s: a long-range variety with more comfortable seats, including lie-flat in business class (and for some, a premium economy section); and a short-haul option with fewer business class seats, which just recline to save space, while maxing out on economy to pack the passengers in.

When you'll fly it

While the Boeing 787 is already in service with ANA and Japan Airlines, United will be the first airline to fly the Dreamliner in our neck of the woods when the 787 makes its debut between Auckland and Houston in the second half of this year.

The aircraft will have 36 of United's confusingly-named 'BusinessFirst' flat bed seats, 63 Economy Plus seats – which are standard economy seats but with extra legroom – and 120 economy seats. (See more details on the seating here.)

Jetstar will follow in mid-2013 and has already revealed Auckland-Singapore and Melbourne-Singapore (with an onwards 787 leg to Beijing) as its first 787 routes.

Air New Zealand is up next, with 787 flights expected to start in the middle of 2014, although AirNZ has not yet revealed which routes it'll fly on.

As for The Red Roo, the first Qantas 787 could be as late as 2016 and will replace the aging Boeing 747s, with Qantas chief Alan Joyce already earmarking the 747-400 service from Sydney and Dallas – a 15+ hour, 13,800km trek – as one of the launch routes for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Joyce also says the 787 “gives us the extra range to open up new direct routes that we can’t service today”, on top of “more frequencies and more destinations in Asia.”

But eventually you won't need to fly overseas to experience the 787. Qantas will eventually inherit some of Jetstar's first 787s for domestic service, ranging from the 'golden triangle' of Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne to the cross-country leg from the east coast to Perth.

“In the short term domestic is secondary, but in the long term it’s a primary role (for the 787)" Lyell Strambi, Qantas Group Executive for Operations, tells Australian Business Traveller.

Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental

The 747-8 Intercontinental hasn't been delivered to its first customer yet. Your best bet to find it is likely to involve connecting in Seoul on Korean Air.

Boeing's 747-8 is an updated version of the venerable jumbo jet, and probably the last version we'll see of the Queen of the Skies. Boeing produces a commercial passenger version in the 747-8I Intercontinental along with the dedicated 747-8F Freighter for cargo.

What's new

Unlike the 787 Dreamliner's composite frame, the 747-8 uses the same carriagework as its predecessors.

Only it's got a longer chassis: this is a stretched version of the familiar 747-400, which adds six metres to the 747-400's 70m length to become the longest passenger aircraft in the world.

That also lets airlines squeeze in another 50 seats in a standard three-class configuration for a total of 467 passengers (if the 747-8 was ordered with only economy class from tip to tail that number would skyrocket to some 740 sardines people).

As you'd expect the Intercontinental is quieter, more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly than the 747-400. The revamped cabin borrows its design DNA from the Boeing Sky Interior design of the 787 Dreamliner and the Boeing 737-800, which is already flying with Qantas and Virgin Australia.

BSI represents a major makeover for conventional aircraft interiors by embracing curves and colours to make the cabin lighter, brighter and 'softer'.

This includes includes a more spacious main passenger entrance with a curved stairway to the upper deck; brighter and customisable LED 'mood' lighting (in place of fluorescent tubes that frequently need replacing), gently sculpted sidewalls and larger oval window surrounds to let in more light.

The overhead bins boast greater capacity than on the 747, but use a pivoting hinge so they take up less cabin space. The overall effect is a cabin that’s lighter and brighter, as well as looking ‘softer’ and more spacious.

When you'll fly it

Lufthansa, Korean Air and Nigerian carrier Arik Air are the only airlines to have signed on the dotted line for the 747-8 Intercontinental, so you'll probably need to seriously rig your travel schedule to score a flight on one of the Lufthansa or Korean Air 747-8s.

Lufthansa will start 747-8 flights mid-year between Frankfurt and Washington DC and will use the opportunity to roll out all-new business class seats (see our detailed report and photo gallery). We expect the extra business class seats in the stretched, quiet and exclusive upper deck cabin will be a real drawcard.

Lufthansa has gone for seats in the already-nicknamed "footsie style" for the upper deck on its 747-8.

A pair of heavily-modified 747-8s are also in the running to become the new Air Force One, replacing the President's 21 year old 747-200 ride – that's slated to happen in 2017, so you might see these touch down in Australia on a future presidential visit.

Airbus A350

If that looks quite a bit like an A330 to you, you're not far off. The A350 is to replace the A330 and compete with Boeing's 787 and 777.

What's new

The A350 is often considered as Airbus' answer to the Boeing 787 – like the Dreamliner it's a medium-sized twin-aisle jet built largely from composites instead of metals.

This brings with it the same raft of benefits as the 787 – higher fuel efficiency for airlines and a more comfortable and enjoyable ride for passengers.

The plane itself is likely to start out around the size of an A330, but a stretched version will compete with Boeing's 777 on busier routes. 

When you'll fly it

The A350 is slated to begin commercial flights in the first half of 2014.

Airbus is spruiking its own EADS Sogerma seats in a staggered layout for the A350 business, but expect airlines to come up with some new ideas too.

There's a good chance we'll see this on some routes to Australia since Qatar, Singapore Airlines and Emirates are early in the queue, with Cathay Pacific (among others) later in the line.

Boeing 777-X

Mysterious and still in the concept stage, the 777-X is nonetheless in demand from airlines keen to cut fuel costs.

What's new

Back at Boeing, the popular long-range 777 (there are almost 1,000 Boeing 777s in the air today) will be overhauled with new wings, engines and interior cabins. 

The biggest win here will be an extended range model – the Boeing 777-8LX concept (yes, we wish the name rolled more easily off the tongue too) – which could allow non-stop flights from Australia to London or New York.

A top range of 17,500km would be sufficent for a non-stop Sydney-London flight with a good 500km still in the tanks.

image: Great Circle Mapper

This marathon would carve a few hours off the Kangaroo Route, bringing the time down to around 19 hours compared to the current fastest run of 22 hours (which includes an hour's stopover).

The question is, how many travellers would prefer to save those three hours rather than taking a break and a stretch in Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai or another hub?

Direct flights from Australia to New York would also be possible, as the distances are slightly shorter (although the Pacific Ocean provides fewer potential spots to stop for extra fuel):

image: Great Circle Mapper

When you'll fly it

The 777-X series is still on the drawing board and isn't expected to be pulling up at airport boarding gates until the end of the decade.

Keep up to date with the latest news for Australian business travellers and frequent flyers: tune into @AusBT on Twitter.

John Walton

John Walton (John Walton)


Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.


  • here2go


    5 Apr, 2012 01:18 pm

    Will we see Virgin replace its Embraers, and Qantaslink 717s with Bomardier C-Series down the track?

    No member give thanks

  • Yusef Danet

    Yusef Danet

    10 Apr, 2012 02:03 pm

    Hasn't Air China also ordered 747-8s? 

    I wouldn't be surprised if they turned up to slot-constrained Sydney as mainland China airlines ramp up Aus services. 

    No member give thanks

  • spentan


    10 Apr, 2012 02:15 pm

    Wasn't this article posted like 7 days ago?

    No member give thanks

  • here2go


    10 Apr, 2012 02:16 pm

    Easter's just finished and most people at work are twiddling thumbs because everyone else is still on holidays.  What better excuse than to kill time with AusBT?

    No member give thanks


19 Jan, 2018 08:43 pm


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