The Future of Flight
Published: May 2009
By James Fallows
Everyone loves to complain about air travel—the lines, the food, the diabolically confusing ticket prices. But a new, superior era of aviation is dawning: <b>James Fallows</b> reports on the science and the business of what's next.
Recently I took one of the longest airline flights now operating: a 13-hour slog from Los Angeles to Auckland on Air New Zealand. Here's the shock: getting there was half the fun.
My business-class seat was on the upper deck of a 747, which has that intimate, private-jet feel. Not many people were traveling, so the crucial lines—to get through security, to herd onto the plane, to clear customs on the other side—were short. The flight crew was glamorous; the seat was comfortable; the food was good. When I saw a young family on the plane with children dressed up as if for church, I realized that I was witnessing a throwback to the early, innocent days of jet travel, when everything about the experience was treated as special by the handful of people lucky enough to take part in it.
For better and for worse, those retro days are gone, apart from the occasional flashback such as my trip on Air New Zealand. Things are better because average fares are much lower than they were a generation ago, and so much more of the public can travel by air. And they're worse for exactly the same reason. While nothing can bring back the elegant touches of elite jet-set travel, a surprising number of authorities on the business of flight are convinced that the industry's brightest era lies ahead. If they are right, within a few years passengers can look forward to an air travel system in which fares are rational, planes are safer and more comfortable, and even the dreaded airport experience is improved. "Compared with what we've been through," says Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft-industry analyst with the Teal Group, in Washington, D.C., "the future looks good, not bad." On the 100th anniversary of flight, here's an overview of the changes on the horizon.
You Get What You Pay For
Every traveler has a story about the insanity of ticket pricing. My latest: recently I booked a round-trip ticket, on United, from Washington-Dulles to San Francisco. The outbound trip was on Wednesday. If I returned that Friday, it would cost more than $2,200. If I stayed one extra day, tickets on the same flights with the same nonstop routing would cost $426. (Obviously, I stayed.) The vagaries of such "yield management" pricing are a familiar joke, but their effects are surprisingly serious—and reversing them is at the heart of a new business structure for airlines.
Fundamentally, what airlines are selling is cubic inches inside their planes. The Boeing Co. has even created a "personal space model" designed to calculate exactly how many cubic inches of leg, rear-end, and shoulder space it takes to create a tolerable experience in the air. The answer: Less than you would like. The typical coach-class seat is 17.2 inches wide, versus about 20 inches in movie theaters. Boeing's model suggests a "pitch," or distance between rows to allow for legroom, of 32 inches in coach, versus 38 inches and upward in theaters. Additional answer: The most important variable in the sense of crowding is whether there's a passenger in the middle seat. Bonus answer: Discount-fare passengers will put up with less horizontal separation between seats than business travelers will. That's not simply because the seats are cheaper but also because steerage passengers are more likely to be traveling as families or groups, and don't have typical road-warriors' horror of touching their neighbors. By the ruthless logic of space, first-class or business seats must on average cost more than coach, since you can fit fewer of them into a given aircraft.
When airlines were nudged into active price competition a quarter-century ago, they set fares according to class of service—but with a twist. Since each empty seat on a departing airplane meant that much lost revenue, airline companies (led by American) began creating the now-familiar, though still-incomprehensible, thicket of special fares. Advance-booking discounts; the hated Saturday-night rule; cheaper seats on popular long hauls than on shorter trips; free upgrades or seats for frequent fliers. All were designed to steer as much traffic as possible into higher fare brackets by making discounted travel inconvenient—and then to pack the rest of the plane with people who would play by the discount rules, rather than leave the seats empty.
By its own logic, the plan was—for a while—a total success. At the high end, enough business travelers were willing to pay "full" (i.e., premium) fare to bring airlines 60 percent of their total revenue from 15 to 20 percent of their passengers. At the low end, competition and convoluted discounts cut the average per-mile fare by almost half. This allowed more people to go more places (as you may have noticed at the airports). The "load factor," or percentage of seats that were filled, went up steadily throughout the 1980's and 90's, so in terms of fuel, pollution, manpower, and so on, travel was more efficient than ever before. Yield management worked brilliantly—as long as passengers didn't know what was happening.
It was the Internet that changed everything. Indeed, the big airline companies were arguably the first real casualties of widespread Net use, because the day when customers could easily compare fares, free of the hocus-pocus of the travel agent, was the day when yield-management pricing began to fall apart. Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines, says that millions of customers sitting at their computers brought about the "denouement of deregulation," in a way that took the big carriers by surprise. "Once it became painfully obvious, thanks to the Web, that there were thousand-dollar seats and hundred-fifty-dollar seats in the same market on the same planes at the same time, business travelers wouldn't accept it anymore," Kelleher says. "The high-fare, last-minute, walk-up business customer"—that is, the cash cow of the industry—"that person is gone forever." Southwest, of course, offers straightforward, comparatively low fares. This year it overtook Delta Air Lines to carry more domestic passengers than any other U.S. company, and together with its fellow "low-cost carriers," including JetBlue, Frontier, and ATA, accounted for more than one-quarter of all U.S. traffic.
Two decades ago, when Donald Burr founded the pioneering low-cost carrier People Express, it and Southwest together were responsible for about 2 percent of all U.S. air traffic. Less than 20 years from now, according to Burr's son Cameron, who is developing iFly, a new air-taxi company using small jets, discount airlines will carry 70 to 80 percent of all traffic. Does this mean that tomorrow's travel experience is encapsulated in today's Southwest—with its peppy flight crews but no seat reservations, no meals, no hub-based networks, and operations based largely atlow-cost airports like BWI and Oakland?
Not exactly. Any airline that wants to stay in business will have to do something to match the operating efficiencies of the low-cost carriers, either by cutting prices or by convincing customers they have a product worth paying a premium to get. But for the passenger, the most noticeable coming change in the business of air travel is that its pricing will be normal. The medieval complexity of today's rules will seem, well, medieval. "In our research, we've found a tremendous level of dissatisfaction that's summed up as 'I don't know what I paid for,'" says Klaus Brauer, director of passenger revenue development at Boeing and, unofficially, the industry's authority on precisely what people do and do not like about flying. "I get on a plane, I'm offered one kind of service—and I get on a different plane and maybe receive worse service, though I pay five times as much," he says. "In the customer's mind, we've broken the connection between product and price."
Learning from Ritz-Carlton and the Gap
"I like using the analogy of retail," says iFly's Cameron Burr. "Sears Roebuck in the seventies was the equivalent of United Airlines today. You can find everything you want"—in the airline's case, you can eventually get anywhere—"but it's all marginal." In retail, Burr says, customers gravitated toward specialized outlets: the Gap, Foot Locker, Circuit City. "That's the segmentation that's going to happen in the airline industry."
John Katzman, the founder and CEO of the Princeton Review and an investor in Burr's company, uses the analogy of hotels. "As a customer, you know what the 'Hyatt' brand means, versus Holiday Inn or Four Seasons, and you associate each with a price and service level," he says. "But most airline 'brands' and service levels are the same, and with each you might be paying five times as much as the person you're sitting next to."
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.
Along with hopes, this scheme raises some questions. Muller addressed one of them by saying that the per-person capital and operating cost for the T-POD's would be considerably less than for current people movers, such as those at Dulles Airport. His actual words were "one-fourth as much." And he addressed another by pointing out that the system could be introduced at large airports about to undergo major renovations—LAX, O'Hare, and Atlanta's Hartsfield, for instance. "This is not pie in the sky," he says. "It is possible in five years."
Air travel is inherently futuristic, but recently we've thought its best days were past. We were wrong. Security will remain a challenge, and the more airlines succeed in addressing travelers' complaints, the more crowded the system will inevitably grow. Even so, on the 100th anniversary of flight, things are, at last, looking up again.
Total number of passengers on U.S. planes in 1926: 6,000
Total number in 1954: 35 million
Total number in 1970: 170 million
Total number in 2002: 612 million
Combined operating revenues of U.S. airlines in 1949: $771 million
Net profit: $18 million
Revenues in 1970: $9.3 billion
Net profit: $2.2 billion
Revenues in 2002: $107 billion
Net loss: $1.4 billion
From the Wright Flyer to Hooters Air
1903 The Wright brothers get things going at Kitty Hawk, remaining airborne for 12 seconds.
1925 The first in-flight movie—The Lost World, a silent film featuring author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—is shown as a PR stunt aboard a World War I bomber. Not until 1961 will movies be shown on commercial flights.
1927 Charles Lindbergh makes the first nonstop transatlantic flight and becomes a global celebrity—the pilot as daredevil adventurer.
1929 First U.S. airport hotel opens, at California's Oakland Airport.
1932 Amelia Earhart is the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. She, too, becomes a global celebrity.
1935 American Airways (the precursor to American Airlines) serves the first hot airplane meal in the United States.
1942 "Here's looking at you, kid": Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca make airport good-byes and air travel seem thrillingly romantic.
1947 Pilot Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier in the Bell X-1; the jet age is well under way.
1947 Howard Hughes designs the largest airplane ever—the Spruce Goose, wingspan 320 feet—which flies only once. A lesson in hubris.
1949 Northwest Airlines is the first domestic carrier to serve alcohol on board.
1953 An amusingly nearsighted Marilyn Monroe flies in style in the movie How to Marry a Millionaire.
1965 Emilio Pucci designs astronaut-inspired stewardess uniforms for Braniff Air, with bubble helmets and heavy coats.
1969 The Concorde, the first and only supersonic commercial jet, takes off for the first time.
1970 Pan Am's Boeing 747 makes its inaugural flight from New York to London, with 352 passengers on board. The era of mass air transit has arrived.
1981 American Airlines launches the first frequent-flier program. The miles begin accumulating. And accumulating.
1986 Top Gun premieres. The Navy never looked so good, and the visceral excitement of jet travel has a new poster boy: Tom Cruise.
1995 Budget carrier Southwest Airlines offers the first electronic (E) ticket.
1996 British Airways launches flat beds in first class.
1998 Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher is banned for life from Cathay Pacific after drinking excessively, assaulting the crew, and generally behaving like a rock star. The term air rage enters the lexicon.
2003 The Concorde is grounded, but Hooters Air debuts—with one plane. A niche airline, perhaps the first of many.
—Hillary Geronemus and Robert Maniaci
Peter Diamandis is the man behind the X-Prize, a contest to build the first aircraft capable of carrying passengers into space and back again. A winner is expected within six months, according to Diamandis, who believes that suborbital flights will be available to the public in the next few years. He talks with T+L about the leading edge of aviation.
Looking ahead, who do you expect will be flying in space? The next 5 to 10 years will be like the early days of aviation in the twenties and thirties, when a barnstormer would fly over the field and take people for a ride that would cost them a month's pay. And the customers would be transformed: they became aeronauts. Similarly, a suborbital ride will be geared toward adventure travelers, people looking for a brand-new experience.
Will space travel always be just for adventurers? No—there is the potential, in 10 to 20 years, of same-day passenger travel. Instead of getting on a jet airplane and flying for 14 hours, say, from New York to Tokyo, you could board a spacecraft. You'd take off and fly at 17,000 miles an hour through the vacuum of space, go over the Pacific, and reenter in an Asian spaceport—all in 45 minutes!
What sort of technology is developing? X-Prize competitors are using state-of-the-art composite materials to build vehicles that will be able to take off and land at regular airports and make flights into space. Many use jet engines for the first part of the flight, then ignite rocket engines to leave the atmosphere.
Sounds risky... It is, but it's a risk worth taking. We are opening a new frontier.
Aviation security is constantly evolving, as authorities respond to new threats, new technologies, and new political realities. "Americans prefer their security to be non-intrusive," says Brian Jenkins, an analyst at the Rand Corp. "We are exquisitely sensitive to anything that affects, or is seen to affect, our civil liberties." Here's a sampling of what's in the works:
CAPPS II (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-Screening System)
The Plan: This new screening system will go beyond its progenitor, CAPPS I, which relies primarily on information that passengers provide to airline reservationists, such as destination and method of payment. CAPPS II, scheduled to be phased in starting next summer, will synthesize data from an undisclosed number of government and private databases, such as U.S. Customs, the National Criminal Information Center, and the Interstate Identification Index.
The Rub: Possible civil-liberties litigation.
ANTI-MISSILE DEFENSE SYSTEMS
The Plan: Congress has appropriated $100 million for R&D to explore technologies that would work best on commercial aircraft.
The Rub: Cost-benefit-analysis questions concerning reliability and practicality. For instance, the more reliable the system, the more maintenance it might require. High maintenance needs could cause delays.
TWIC (Transportation Worker Identity Credential)
The Plan: A biometric ID card for all transportation workers, coordinated with those for international transportation workers, was being tested this fall, using six biometrics, including fingerprints and facial recognition. The idea is to make airports less porous to unauthorized individuals.
The Rub: None at this juncture.
NEXT-GENERATION IMAGING DEVICES
The Plan: Improvements to existing technologies are the rule: Computerized X-ray machines that use multiple planes and give more-defined images. Walk-through magnetometers that also include air-jet trace-detectors, which will "sniff" for explosives as well as detect weapons and other contraband. Full-body scanners that use either X-ray or CAT scan technology. And that's just passenger screening.
The Rub: Reliability and privacy issues.