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The Future of Flight

What Burr, Katzman, and others suggest is that the airline market of a decade from now will be much more differentiated and clearly branded than today's, with predictable prices and levels of service for each brand. At the bottom, in both price and comfort, will be some modern counterpart to Icelandic Air of the 1960's—the cut-rate, advance-booking, long-haul carriers for large families, tour groups, backpackers, and other extremely price-sensitive travelers. At the top will be the air-taxi operators, using a new generation of 6- to 10-passenger jets to take individuals or groups from point to point on demand. "Air taxis will never be a mass business," says Vern Raburn, founder and CEO of Eclipse Aviation, one of several companies rushing to bring inexpensive small jets to market. "But they will be a genuine alternative for people who need to go where the airlines aren't going, which is more and more places, or people willing to pay a premium price for a premium service."

In between will be companies like Southwest and JetBlue, plus the descendants of today's main-line carriers. These will exist in shrunken form—and will exist at all only if they offer a dependably different level of comfort and convenience, compared with the low-cost airlines. Richard Aboulafia, the industry analyst, says that "right now, the sweet spot in pricing is Economy Plus," referring to United Airlines' brand of coach seating with extra legroom. "An airline based on something like Economy Plus could be a future sweet spot." He offered yet another analogy for the potential branding of air travel: "It's like soap. Sometimes you just want generic. Sometimes Dove. Sometimes Clinique. We'll have a market that will allow real consumer choice."

Smaller Airplanes—Closer to the Sky
The Douglas DC-3 was the first plane to revolutionize airline travel, starting just before World War II. It was faster, smoother, and safer than anything that had come before, and within a few years more Americans were making long-distance trips by air than by rail. Two Boeing planes, the 727 and 747, also had enormous social and economic impact. The 727 was the plane that united the country by being fast enough, cheap enough, and safe enough to bring any point in the continental United States within one manageable day's travel from any other point. The 747 gave us the era of mass international travel.

The airliners of the future are likely to be smaller. Not as small as the corporate-sized jets that companies like Eclipse Aviation, Safire Aircraft Co., Adam Aircraft, and even Cessna are introducing for the air-taxi market. But significantly smaller than today's most common Boeing and Airbus models, with their 150-plus passenger capacity. The airplanes that enter the fleet a decade from now may look more like today's RJ's, or regional jets, holding between 30 and 80 passengers.

The shift toward smaller airplanes is in part a consequence of niche market segmentation. The more precisely each airline defends its new brand and function, the less it relies on mass traffic for each route. For technical reasons, new small airplanes can also be more efficient to operate, seat for seat. (For quasi-religious reasons, Airbus has determined that there will be a sufficient worldwide market for its gargantuan, 550-passenger A380, an exception to the general rule.) But most of all, the shift arises from the idea that what passengers want—reasonable fares, reasonably frequent flights, a reasonably wide range of destinations—can best be met by a large fleet of comfortable small airplanes.

The question of comfort is of course the crucial one, especially since so many passengers think bumpy, dangerous, and unpleasant when they hear of small airplanes. The most interesting airplane now being considered is Boeing's 7E7, which the company has nicknamed Dreamliner after conducting an Internet popularity poll. The 7E7, which will seat more than 200 people, is small only in comparison with the new Airbus goliath. But its design is being carefully studied in the airline industry. That's not simply because it is seen as Boeing's main chance to stay in the business of producing commercial aircraft. (Boeing's management is waiting to see how many orders it gets before formally committing to build the plane.) It is also because the plane incorporates a number of innovations that could be tried elsewhere.

The changes that passengers will notice most are inside the plane. "Passengers have articulated needs—things they know they would like to be different," says Klaus Brauer, who is working on the Dreamliner's interior. These needs boil down to a desire to have two seats' worth of space for the price of half a seat, which of course isn't going to happen. But even more powerful, he says, are "unarticulated needs—aspects of flight that passengers may not notice on a cognitive level but that will let them walk away feeling great." Brauer took me through a catalogue of these subliminal factors, and when I wasn't feeling uneasy about some variant of mind control, I was feeling hopeful about a more pleasant travel experience.

The 7E7 will adjust the color of ambient cabin lighting, in a way that is supposed to re-create the sensations of sunrise and sunset and help people adjust to jet lag. "On a long intercontinental flight—for example, from Seattle to London—we could try to make it night really fast in the airplane, with hues resembling sunset, as well as a nice color to flatter the meals you're served," Brauer says. "We've found out a lot about which colors make food more appealing." The plane will adjust humidity, so travelers won't feel parched. It will actually add background noise—modern planes can be too quiet, allowing passengers to hear too much of what their neighbors are doing. And it will reverse a dominant trend in airplane design by emphasizing, rather than concealing, the fact that passengers are tens of thousands of feet up in the sky. "People say how bored they are with flying," Brauer says. "It's sophisticated to say you hate it. But our research shows that, very deep in the subconscious, almost everyone—young and old, in any part of the world—loves the idea of flying." The practical consequence, he says, would be a variety of touches in the 7E7's interior that make travelers aware that they are in a flying machine, not an anonymous hotel corridor.

Escape from Hell
The worst part of flying is the airport. The worst part of the airport is the time lost waiting in lines. The check-in line. The security line. The line to begin boarding the airplane. The line to get a car. It's depressing to even think about. Fortunately, the people contemplating the future of air travel are hearteningly full of futuristic concepts, including ways of eliminating delays: Automated air-traffic control systems, to avoid today's ripple-effect congestion (snowstorm in Denver means delays in Atlanta, etc.). "Synthetic vision" products, like those used by the military, to help pilots "see" the runway in the dark or through clouds and smog. But the gee-whiz feature most likely to impress passengers is specifically designed to affect those airport lines.

Peter Muller, originally from South Africa, is an engineer with Olsson Associates, in Lakewood, Colorado. For the past four years he has traveled the airport-planning circuit, evangelizing for a product he calls the T-POD. The T-POD, more formally known as a Personalized Rapid Transport Pod, is essentially a four-passenger automated vehicle that travels along a track, or guideway, on rubber wheels. The idea behind the T-POD is that it, rather than you, would go through the tediously familiar stages of the airport process, in a way that almost completely eliminates standing in line. When you pulled into the airport parking lot, a T-POD would scoot up beside you—as some parking shuttles do now. You'd step in with your luggage and have a seat. If you were alone, it would be your personal vehicle, or it could hold up to four members of a group or family.

Once in the T-POD, you would swipe a credit card or punch in a reservation number, as with today's automatic check-in kiosks. Then the T-POD would take over. It would print out boarding passes and luggage tags. Before it got to the terminal, it would go through a security screening gate. "Today, if the security line is backed up, you stand among a mass of people with unscreened bags," Muller says—hinting at a current security problem so obvious it is uncomfortable to mention. "With the T-POD, you could wait in seated comfort and read or work. The only people in the security area would be those being screened."

At the security barrier, the screened bags would be checked in and placed on another carrier, ready for loading—and when it was time for you, specifically, to board, then the T-POD would go to the plane. The T-POD's terminal would be in wireless contact with the airline's dispatchers. If you still had 45 minutes, it could let you wait inside, or take you to a lounge or concession area. When you came home, a T-POD would collect you from the plane once your bags were ready, and take you to your car.


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