For now, a good view is the best way to ease motion sickness. But showing passengers the true movement of the plane can also create problems. In turbulence, a passenger seated at the rear of the plane is moving around in very different ways from the people seated up front. “If you have a clear view,” Planey says, “you can see the fuselage twisting, which is what it’s supposed to do.” But the sight tends to alarm passengers, so designers have learned to interrupt the view through the interiors of most modern jets with restrooms and curtains.
What are the real limits for commercial transit on Earth? Assume for a moment that vehicles can travel any route at any speed without tearing apart or running out of gas. Onboard, what can our bodies take?
The longest commercial nonstop flight in the world is Newark to Singapore—a 9,535-mile haul that takes just under 19 hours. Imagine the trip on a maglev train. On a smooth, straight, point-to-point track between the two cities, a commercial maglev operator wanting to avoid passenger complaints would still have to obey conservative, 0.15G limits on acceleration and deceleration. Within those confines, the train would accelerate continuously until, at a halfway point somewhere in the Arctic Circle, it very briefly reached a peak speed of 11,000 mph. Then it would immediately begin a comfortable 0.15G deceleration, for a total trip of just under two hours. If we allowed our theoretical supertrain to follow the more permissive standards of commercial flight, however—1.5 Gs of acceleration, 1 G of deceleration—the journey would be much faster. The train would use the first third of the trip to accelerate to 30,000 mph. Then it would use the remaining two thirds of the trip to (somewhat) gently decelerate. Total time: 46 minutes. All other considerations aside—such as the sonic booms that would deafen the towns along the way—these are the fastest trips any paying, conscious passenger will ever take on this planet.
How close are we to such a trip? In March 2001, Boeing announced its concept for a so-called Sonic Cruiser, capable of flights at just short of the speed of sound—as much as 20 percent faster than the Boeing 747-400, one of the fastest commercial jets in service. The new wide-body plane would, Boeing promised, shave nearly an hour off every 3,000 miles traveled.
But airlines for the most part are finding that it’s easier and cheaper to distract passengers from the experience of travel than it is to make the trip faster and shorter. Passengers are happy to spend a bit of time on the plane, it turns out, if they have a sense of control over their surroundings. “Watching the moving-map display, inflight Internet, television—all of that helps,” Planey says.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.