Windowless Airplane? No Thanks

“I magine being on a flight where, in place of windows, screens lining the cabin project images of the sky outside”, Tanya Powley — the manufacturing correspondent of The Financial Timeswrote in this article pertaining to a new technology which could help reduce the weight of an airplane by eliminating windows and replace them with plastic display screens as one of several applications of printable electronics that are being developed at the Centre for Process Innovation in Sedgefield in northeast England.

With all due respect: no.

First of all, my thoughts from this article I wrote almost two months ago still hold true — as they have all of my traveling life:

I typically enjoy a window seat. It offers an opportunity to look at the marvels of both mankind — with the cities built and the ribbons of highways on which tiny metal cars traverse — and the wonders of nature, from majestic mountains to billowy clouds in all sorts of different formations. To see a sunset or a sunrise from the air is an especially magical treat to enjoy and embrace.”

The same thoughts were true on my very first flight from New York to San Juan on American Airlines when I was barely a teenager; they were true when I first wrote that statement here at The Gate back on October 4, 2011; and those thoughts still hold true today.

I truly enjoy the transformation of our wonderful planet evolve before my eyes — aided by the combination of the rotation of the Earth with the jet propulsion of the metal tube in which I am seated. I have always enjoyed guessing where I am without the aid of a map tracking the flight — and I am usually correct…

…unless I am over some vast expanse of water — then all bets are off on that one. The cloud formations then take over my attention — if there are any clouds present in the sky, of course. I am awed by just how deep blue the color of the sky can be; and at night, I enjoy watching the stars seemingly so close that you can just reach up and grab one. Thunderstorms below give the impression of flashes from the cameras of a thousand photographers under a veil of puffy cumulonimbus clouds. Complemented by the music to which I enjoy listening while in flight, I am truly mesmerized and entertained. The window on an airplane during a flight is my favorite mode of in-flight entertainment.

I don’t want to look at some continuous screen plastered throughout the walls and seats of the cabin to see the outside. My understanding is that the view can instantly be changed: the screens could show Paris while I am a passenger on an airplane heading from Buenos Aires to Seoul. I may as well use my own computer in the comfort of my home to do that using some mapping software…

…although one possible advantage is that I could probably see more of the outside with the screens than with a typical window in a conventional airplane — but somehow I do not believe that would be enough to change my mind.

Second, what if the system becomes inoperable? What happens then? Do passengers sit in a dark airplane for the duration of the flight? I cannot tell you how many times the in-flight entertainment system either malfunctioned or was disabled while I was a passenger on an airplane — and don’t get me started about members of the flight crew who for some reason were unable to operate a video cassette recorder long after that technology became obsolete. If members of the flight crew could not get those little monitors to display images and videos correctly, what makes me think that they can reliably do this with a continuous screen throughout the aircraft?

Third: advertising. Don’t get me wrong — I am not against advertising, as it helps to fund many products and services which we can enjoy free of charge or at reduced costs…

…but do I really want a giant video selling me on the virtues of driving a luxury vehicle or — ahem — attempting to get me to sign up for a credit card?

Fourth: how does this technology resolve the debate of the window shade, which is a controversy that has been ongoing for years? Can passengers adjust the brightness of the screens near their seats? What if a passenger does not want to have the screen display any images at all? Does this mean the continuous image will be interrupted by empty black holes?

I get it that windows add weight to an airplane; and that they contribute to reduced efficiency and increased drag, which can decrease fuel economy and therefore add to the operating cost of the aircraft. How much do you want to bet that if airlines started flying windowless airplanes that they will pass the savings of their costs on to you and me?

Similarly — as I first reported here last month — aircraft manufacturer Airbus SAS is seeking to eliminate the traditional cockpit as we know it from airplanes in the future. The company has already received a patent in the United States for an aircraft of the future where pilots — possibly seated downstairs in the belly of the aircraft in front of the cargo hold or upstairs in the tail — could view real-time images displayed digitally rather than traditionally through windows of a cockpit.

Although I am all for finding ways to improve technology while simultaneously protecting the environment as diligently as possible, I am not convinced that the removal of the traditional cockpit from aircraft is part of the answer — nor am I convinced that windowless airplanes in general are part the solution either.

If you were to ask me if I would consider windowless airplanes if the idea meant bringing back supersonic air travel, I might be more open to the idea. According to this report written by Daisy Carrington for CNN, Aerion Corporation is working on a jet that would reach Mach 1.6 and would possibly be ready for release by 2020; while Spike Aerospace has announced plans for the S-512, a business jet that could travel at speeds of Mach 1.8 and would be available by 2018.

The return of supersonic travel would be exciting news — but what would be the cost? Would the elimination of windows be essential for either sub-orbital flights or an evacuated tube transport system — both of which purportedly promise to propel you from New York to Beijing in approximately two hours by as soon as the year 2020?

Speed, comfort, efficiency, technology — go ahead and improve all of that. Just leave my windows alone, please.

Image courtesy of Spike Aerospace.

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