Air Traffic May Double in 20 Years, While Legroom Shrinks

How do you fit more passengers in fewer airplanes? Guess.

We’ve seen these simulations of global air traffic before, but this one, showing typical daily flights across the North Atlantic, has a calm beauty that makes it especially mesmerizing. Maybe it’s because the routes over the ocean, away from the busy hubs at London and New York, don’t seem particularly crowded.

Don’t kid yourself, though. Global air traffic is rising, and aerospace industry projections, like this one from Boeing, predict that the number of airplanes in the commercial fleet will double—to about 41,000—in the next 20 years. That assumes a steady annual growth of four to five percent.

Not so fast, says the consulting group IFC International in a recent white paper. Instead of relying on historical trends alone, they considered how future developments in the airline business might reduce the demand for new airplanes to less than 12,000 over the next two decades, compared to the 20,000 that most analysts predict.

One unknown is the future of low-cost carriers, which historically have increased the number of passengers. If emerging markets like China are slow to develop these bargain airlines, the demand for airplanes would be less in the next two decades. Similarly, if airlines in the Middle East, which currently account for more than 20 percent of backlogged orders of widebody aircraft, don’t meet their targets for passenger traffic, they might reduce their fleet.

Finally, airlines won’t need as many new airplanes if they can squeeze more passengers into the ones they already have. That trend is already under way with the conversion to “slim-line” seats. Even if the flying public is dubious about the new seats, such “small increases in productivity” allow carriers to reduce their purchase of new airplanes by as much as five percent, according to the IFC report—assuming, of course, that the passengers don’t rebel.

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