Boeing's 787 Dreamliner will be part of a revolution in the way we travel. Photo: James Morgan
Imagine soaring 100km above the earth in a sub-orbital "spacejet" - to the edge of space itself - and covering the distance from Sydney to London in just three hours.
It's a vision that's still decades away from fruition - if it happens at all - but in the intervening time the business of travel will still transform significantly.
Bigger airports - much bigger
Qantas now offers swipe-and-go check-in terminals and smart bag tags that can track your luggage. Photo: Michele Mossop
China is already building the world's biggest. Covering 55 square kilometres, the new Beijing Daxing International Airport is larger than the island of Bermuda and capable of handling more passengers than London's Heathrow and New York's JFK airports combined.
Even so, aircraft manufacturer Airbus believes that larger planes such as its A380 superjumbo will be needed to help airports manage their limited take-off and landing capacity.
This will create a shift towards mega-airports from which many travellers will need to catch connecting flights to reach their final destination.
Even within Australia, airports are gearing up to handle the boom in travel.
Canberra Airport is on track for the mid-2013 completion of its $420 million modernisation program, which will add a new terminal for Virgin Australia and upgrade the airport to handle international flights – even including the A380 and Boeing 747.
Perth Airport is also in the middle of a $700 million makeover. A new domestic terminal designed to handle the "fly in, fly out" resources sector opens in February.
Later in the year the airport will open its first boarding gate designed for the A380, so that passengers can board both decks of the superjumbo.
Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and United Airlines are all rolling out new-look lounges with a contemporary vibe and an emphasis on the needs of the modern traveller.
This includes a wider variety of seating options for tapping away on your laptop or tablet, fast wireless internet, and plenty of powerpoints to keep those batteries topped up.
Cathay Pacific has gone to the extent of creating its own piece of furniture. The Solus chair is an innovative pod where travellers can eat, work or relax with a high degree of privacy.
Need more privacy and maybe even somewhere to catch forty winks between flights?
Munich Airport is the launchpad for the Napcab – compact self-contained cabins fitted with a bed, workdesk, TV screen and wifi hotspot.
Each Napcab costs €15 (A$19) per hour – just swipe your credit card to pay and unlock the door.
For many Australian travellers, the next two years will mark the debut of the next generation of passenger jets.
Some airlines are only just beginning to roll out the Airbus A380 – including Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and, from mid-2013, British Airways. All are eyeing Sydney as a potential superjumbo route.
Boeing's revolutionary 787 Dreamliner is the next big thing, even if it's not as big as the A380.
This single-deck aircraft is made largely from carbon-fibre composites rather than metal, delivering a stronger but lighter frame.
Airlines love the 787's fuel efficiency, estimated at 20 per cent over similarly-sized conventional aircraft. Travellers will love the higher cabin pressure and increased humidity – which minimises fatigue and offsets the effects of jetlag – along with the more spacious interior, oversized windows and electronic window-tinting.
Qatar Airways expects to fly the first 787 into Australia on its daily Perth-Doha service, starting in February.
Jetstar will join the 787 club in the second half of the year, followed by Air New Zealand in 2014. Qantas isn't likely to start flying the Dreamliner until at least 2016.
The comfort factor
Airplane seats are changing, too. Airlines are beginning to adopt slim-line economy seats that effectively boost legroom by adding a few precious inches around the knees.
The real battle of the future will be for elbow room, as airlines cram on extra seat into each row on their largest aircraft.
That's achieved by fitting seats which are narrower than the normal 18-inch economy seat.
Airbus is already offering airlines seats of just 17 inches across, but cannily matched against an extra-wide seat which measures a generous 20 inches.
The intention is for airlines to charge more money for the wider seats, selling them to larger passengers or anyone who fancies a bit of extra space.
In business class, the trend is towards "herringbone" or staggered layouts where every seat has direct access to the aisle.
And in first class, designers are toying with ways to make the pointy end of the plane feel even more exclusive.
“We might be able to have more of a flexible configuration where you can maybe zone off a number of seats where people are flying together,” predicts Luke Hawes, director of UK aviation design firm PriestmanGoode.
“You could almost create a cabin within a cabin. I think that could be quite appealing, and there are concepts we're working on which are along those lines.”
If any single factor will reshape the way we fly, it's technology.
Qantas is already on the leading edge, with frequent flyer cards carrying an embedded smartchip so you can check in for a flight just by waving your card over a special card-reader at the airport.
Matching electronic bag tags track your luggage from the moment it's dropped off at a self-service counter.
Smartphone apps to tell you when the flight starts boarding – and if there's a delay or a gate change – help streamline the process.
Qantas and Virgin Australia already support Apple's new Passbook app, which puts a boarding pass onto your iPhone, but Apple isn't stopping there.
The tech colossus has patented an entire travel system, predictably named iTravel.
iTravel spans from wireless check-in to booking flights and hotel rooms and even using your iPhone to control a hotel room's TV set and airconditioning, as well as providing a city guide listing all the latest activities.
Apple's iPad has also revolutionised the way we spend time when flying. Qantas, Virgin Australia and low-cost Singaporean airline Scoot are all exploring systems to replace the traditional in-seat video screen with an iPad or similar tablet.
In many cases passengers can watch in-flight movies on their own tablet, laptop or even smartphone, with the programs beamed through the plane's wireless network.
“Entertainment in economy class will generally improve as airlines begin to roll out wireless in-flight entertainment solutions that stream videos and other content to passengers' own devices,” says Mary Kirby, editor-in-chief of Airline Pas-senger Experience magazine. She notes that “this will make in-seat power for economy-class passengers a necessity” as new aircraft are rolled out.
Passengers will even be able to battle fellow flyers via computer game.
“Games is something we are looking into,” says Olivier Krüger, senior vice-president at Lufthansa Systems, which developed the in-flight wifi systems trialled by Qantas and Virgin Australia.
“At the end of the day, we are building an internet in the aircraft. You can have a chat room where people can come together and agree to play a game, then you simply log on with your seat number.”
Even if you can't yet fly from Australia to the UK in three hours, it seems there'll be no shortage of ways to enjoy the long flight ahead.