Why everyone is rushing to design a windowless jet.
The Aerospace Windowless Aircraft. Image: CPI
Hope you're not too attached to looking out the windows when you fly—the designers of tomorrow's airplanes seem intent on getting rid of them. A Paris design firm recently made waves when it released its concept for a sleek, solar paneled, windowless passenger jet. Before that, Airbus proposed eschewing windows and building its cabins out of transparent polymers. Now, the Center for Process Innovation has floated its own windowless plane concept, and it's attracting plenty of attention, too.
So, because an arbitrary rule someone made up says three makes a trend, I guess we have to seriously consider the prospect that flying in the future won't include plexiglass portals to the outside sky.
First off, these are all high-concept ideas; no airline is about to phase out its expensive window-lined 757s anytime soon.
But there's a good reason for this proposed window-killing—sticking windows onto the sides of planes means you have to bulk up the fuselage, which makes planes heavier, and bigger gas guzzlers. There's a reason cargo planes don't have windows.
CPI estimates that for every 1 percent of weight reduction, planes see a 0.75 percent fuel savings. And that's a big deal. Airlines burn hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel every month—easily the industry's biggest expense. Cutting back the weight of a given plane by even 5 percent would have huge ramifications for an airline's profit margins, and the cost of airfare.
In CPI's design, the firm imagines replacing windows with low-energy OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes) that could use cameras to realistically broadcast the outside environment in a panoramic view that could be toggled on or off by the passengers.
Earlier this year, the Paris-based firm Technicon Design snared an award for its IXION windowless jet concept. It was remarkably similar; it also sought to use cameras mounted outside the plane to provide a "360-degree view" of the scenery, projected on high res screens inside the cabin. Technicon also noted that this would allow the plane's frame to be more flexible and lightweight.
A couple years before that, commercial airplane behemoth Airbus floated the idea of doing away with windows in its 2050 future airliner designs. The company suggested an embrace of biomimicry, and turning the cabin into a sort of terrifying/awesome airborne hive cluster.
"A biopolyer membrane would control light, humidity and temperature and could become transparent or opaque at the push of a button, eliminating the need for windows," Discovery News explained.
Airbus is still on its windowless tear, by the way—it recently filed a patent for windowless cockpits.
All of which is well and good, but these ultra-future window replacement sort of press the question—who's even using windows, anyway? For one thing, only the passenger sitting next to them enjoys the view.
A year or two ago, on a Transatlantic flight from Europe to New York, I remember flying over Greenland, close enough to see the spectacular blues and whites of its glaciers, even what looked to me like a waterfall from the meltwater runoff. It was one of those few moments that was literally breathtaking—I sort of hiccup/gasped audibly—and I looked back down the cabin to see if everyone was as rapt as I was.
Nope. Everyone was watching movies or TV on the back-seat monitors, or their iPads, or fast asleep. Ever since, I've been impressed by how thoroughly we ignore those windows, that offer anyone who buys a $220 ticket to Phoenix an earthbound view mostly unprecedented in the history of humanity, made possible by technological marvels still only decades old. Now we mostly seem aware of them only when someone selfishly opens one in the middle of a daytime red eye, sending a sharp sliver of light and drawing angry groans from sleeping passengers
I guess that's a long-winded way of saying that airplane windows, and the real-life Google Earth views they look out on, have been thoroughly normalized and demystified; we barely bother anymore.
Meanwhile, airline travel poses an increasingly thorny problem for our resource-constrained, climate-changing future. The emissions-heavy mode of transit will need to radically cut down on fuel use in any way possible; if and when carbon is priced, or oil grows scarce again, planes will have to become lighter or risk extinction (or becoming the province of just those who can afford the high costs of jet fuel).
That said, there's a pretty feasible future wherein we do nothing; we keep burning oil until it runs out—and we keep our antiquated, window-studded airplanes. Given that I've flown in still have 1970s-holdover ashtrays on the armrest, and that airliners hate making big investments in new tech, I'd say that's a pretty good possibility, too. At least we'd be able to look out at Greenland as we're melting it.