4 Aviation Innovations to Watch in 2024 and Beyond

Recent advances in aviation have been largely incremental. That’s not to say they haven’t been impactful: Today’s airplanes are far safer and more efficient than those of previous generations. But the basic parameters of powered civilian flight have not changed much in the past 50 years.

But what we might call the “incremental era” of aviation innovation is now drawing to a close as the aviation industry stands on the cusp of a technological renaissance. The flying public could see the payoff within a few years, with more dramatic changes to follow in the 2030s and 2040s.

Much remains to be determined about the future of aviation, but these four trends are likely to have at least some impact on the industry in the coming years.

1. AI Could Improve Aircraft Manufacturing and Internal Governance Processes

Aviation safety is once again front and center. Despite an ongoing, long-term decline in passenger injuries and deaths per flight mile, the flying public has — understandably — very low tolerance for lapses in manufacturing quality or crew safety.

Artificial intelligence can help on both counts. 

On the factory floor, intelligence fault detection systems can alert technicians to fabrication issues that might otherwise slip through the quality control process unnoticed. It’s possible, though too early to know for sure, that more sophisticated fault detection would have caught Boeing’s exit-door module issue before any affected aircraft entered service.

Meanwhile, improvements in generative AI capabilities could soon result in meaningful improvements in corporate governance at the vast array of OEMs and secondary suppliers that make modern aviation possible. Thanks to groundbreaking work by corporate governance experts like Nygina Mills, a proponent of AI integration into cross-disciplinary functions across organizations, the flying public — and aviation firms themselves — stand to benefit from new AI-enabled process controls and institutional guardrails that make everyone safer and more productive.

2. Autopilot’s “Learning Curve” Accelerates

Pilots and flight crews are another aviation industry beneficiary of rapidly advancing AI. Planes aren’t quite smart enough to fly themselves yet, but that’s no longer an over-the-horizon capability. Within a decade or two, we’re likely to see fully autonomous aircraft — likely small and possibly cargo-only, at first — running fixed routes in low-congestion regions.

3. Electric Propulsion and Vertical Takeoff Enable Intraurban Air Travel at Scale

One of the most exciting frontiers in passenger flight is intraurban travel, defined as routes shorter than 150 to 200 kilometers (about 100 miles). Recent advances in electric propulsion and vertical takeoff technology have created a new class of aircraft known as eVTOLs (electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing), which are capable of ferrying passengers from small landing pads faster than urban highways or even rail lines allow. Initially, these craft will augment existing taxi or public transport networks, but personal eVTOLs could be on the horizon too.

4. Hydrogen and SAF May Reduce Aviation’s Carbon Footprint

Current-generation electric planes can only take passengers so far, and it’s unclear where the technology’s limits lie. For medium-range air travel — what McKinsey calls Regional Air Mobility, or RAM — decarbonization depends on denser liquid fuels like hydrogen or bio-kerosene, also known as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)

These fuels remain expensive and difficult to produce at scale, but the problem is more technical than fundamental. More importantly, SAF is a drop-in replacement for conventional aviation fuel, all but eliminating the “stranded asset” problem that could hold back decarbonization efforts elsewhere.

The Future of Flight Is Coming

It’s an exciting time for aviation professionals and passengers alike. 

From rapid advances in AI that could improve manufacturing and in-flight processes to the emergence of novel, sustainable propulsion technologies that free the industry from its reliance on fossil fuels, the trends set to drive the industry’s future are already taking shape.

Much remains uncertain, of course. Technical issues or compute bottlenecks could slow the pace of AI integration, or basic constraints of physics could complicate efforts to fully decarbonize air travel. But the direction of travel — toward greater automation, greater efficiency, and new flight modes — seems clear.