THOUGH IT MAY have lacked the drama that accompanied takeoff at Kitty Hawk a century ago, a recent flight in the skies above Shanghai still marked a historic moment in aviation. On May 5 a plane called the C919 circled the city for an hour, with just five crew members aboard. The 168-seat jet is the first large commercial aircraft manufactured in China—its challenge to popular models from giants Boeing and Airbus. That first public test flight heralded the rise of Asia, and China in particular, in a radically evolving aviation industry.
Asia is home to nine of the world’s ten most popular flights, and while air travel is booming around the world, it’s expected to soar exponentially in the region. That brings both unprecedented opportunities and challenges, and how airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and governments tackle them will change how the world flies.
The growth will generate countless new routes and require hundreds of new airports and thousands of new planes and pilots. Such a dramatic increase in flight would also be accompanied by a surge in greenhouse gases linked to climate change, so the industry is doubling down on efforts to improve fuel efficiency and curb emissions.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in 2016 there were a staggering 3.8 billion air travelers, a number it predicts will balloon to 7.2 billion passengers by 2035—a near doubling of current levels. Most of this boost in traffic will come from the Asia-Pacific region (which includes Asia, Australia, and New Zealand), with China set to overtake the U.S. as the largest aviation market in the world around 2024 and India set to displace the U.K. for third place around 2025.
In its own two-decade forecast, U.S. airplane manufacturer Boeing projects that worldwide demand for aircraft will top 39,000 planes in the next 20 years—of those, over 15,000 will be headed to Asian markets.
“China is now the first trillion-dollar aviation market in our forecast,” says Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing at Boeing.
Three factors are putting more passengers in planes. “The first is the expansion of economies and the rise in incomes in Asia and Africa,” says IATA’s David Oxley.
While the proportion of middle-income households compared to the overall population in these nations is much smaller than those found in more mature economies, the absolute numbers are still enormous. The upsurge in middle-class households in major nations like China and India in particular is “pulling people into air travel,” says Oxley.
Cheaper airfares, thanks to both more efficient planes and competition, are also making flying more accessible. IATA forecasts that the average roundtrip airfare (before surcharges and taxes) in 2017 will be $351—63 percent lower than airfares in 1995, adjusting for inflation.
That’s partly attributable to the aggressive growth of low-cost airlines, especially in Asia, which is home to several of the world’s largest budget carriers, including AirAsia, Jetstar Asia, and Cebu Pacific.
Millennials are also behind the travel boom. “People of working ages tend to fly most often,” says Oxley. “Countries whose populations are young and expanding quickly are projected to have the fastest-growing aviation markets.”
Though travelers from China are likely to stick to Asian destinations for the coming decade, Oxley predicts surges in travel to North America and Europe as well.