The technological advances of aircraft over the past century of manned flight have led to monumental advances in the geographic coverage of air transport. Propeller driven piston engines on the first commercial aircraft limited the range, speed, and number of passengers that the aircraft were able to accommodate. One of the first aircraft to enter commercial service was the Douglas DC 3 in 1935. The DC 3 had a capacity of 30 passengers and when full could fly at a speed of nearly 350 km/h and had a range of just over 500 km. Compare that to the newest commercial aircraft to enter service, the Airbus A 380, which depending on configuration can accommodate in excess of 555 passengers, has a top speed of 980 km/h and a range of 14 800 km, putting nearly any two points in the world within nonstop distance of each other.
The technical capabilities of the aircraft used by early airliners played one of the most important roles in determining network structure. Due to the limited range of early aircraft, routes were linear in nature and included a large number of intermediate stops along the way. Flights that today are measured in hours were instead measured in days. An example is the London–Cape Town route. Originally the route had as many as 27 stops and took nearly 11 days. Today, the two cities are connected with nonstop flights taking less than 12 h. As aircraft technology allowed aircraft to fly further with larger payloads, passenger network structures evolved allowing carriers to bypass the intermediate stops that were historically important. At present there is a wide range of aircraft available allowing carriers to match the aircraft in their fleets to the particular conditions of the markets they serve.
Today's aircraft ranges can be divided into three geographic realms: regional, international, and intercontinental. Examples of jet aircraft serving the regional realm include the Boeing 737 series and the Airbus 320/319 range. These aircraft have a range of less than 4000 km and are primarily used on high density regional routes such as London–Paris or New York–Chicago. Aircraft that fall into the international geographic scope are twin aisle aircraft like the Airbus 330 or the Boeing 767. These aircraft have a longer range, up to 10 000 km, and can also carry a greater number of passengers. These are used in markets such as Los Angeles–New York and Paris–Chicago. The aircraft in the intercontinental class have the ability to connect almost any two cities in the world. Examples include the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A340. The range of these aircraft is over 14 000 km and can carry in excess of 400 passengers. Popular routes for these aircraft include Sydney–Los Angeles and Singapore–London.
The two primary views on the immediate future of aircraft development are fragmentation and consolidation. The fragmentation approach is defined by hubbypassing, market development, and increased frequency on thin routes. Fragmentation is the preferred operation strategy of the airlines' most frequent and profitable traveler, the business traveler. The consolidation strategy focuses on being more cost effective by utilizing a hubdominated global network where major hubs are linked together through airline alliance formation.
Boeing is taking a fragmentation approach to the future of passenger aircraft, based on the belief that the airlines of the world, and in turn their passengers, want an aircraft able to connect a large number of origin– destination pairs covering great distances and avoiding hub connections. This belief and the opinion that the global airline industry will continue to liberalize is leading Boeing to construct the 787, which will have a range of over 16 000 km, and is able to carry between 200 and 300 passengers.
Airbus is taking a consolidation approach with its newest aircraft, the Airbus 380. This double decker aircraft is the largest passenger aircraft ever built and will be able to carry over 550 passengers up to 15 000 km. The freighter version of the aircraft has triple deck capacity. It is Airbus' belief that the airline industry will consolidate globally around a number of global hubs and the A380 will allow carriers to move large amounts of passengers or cargo between these points reducing congestion in the air transport network. Airbus also believes the fragmentation strategy being pursued by Boeing is practical and has developed the A350, which has similar characteristics to the 787.
The diversity and dynamic nature of the air transport industry provide a rich research vein for geographers to tap and explore. The very geographic nature of the industry allows the viewpoints of geographers to be sought after by researchers in other disciplines and practitioners within the industry. The three sections of air transport discussed are rich with areas of geographic inquiries and as the industry continues to adjust to political, social, economic, and environmental stimulus spatial knowledge of the industry will grow along with the industry.