Business Unusual

Your phone is now a travel agent. How the technology is changing air travel

This is the story of how what was once just a fantasy for humans is now no more than the bus of the sky.

Air travel is a little younger than the car, so we should be able to compare their progress. But a car could be described as a cart with an unupgraded horse. A plane gives humans wings able to cover swamps, mountains and seas like they are straight flat roads.

We should be more impressed with how far aviation has come since that day in December 1903, considering you can now book a non-stop flight from Sydney to Houston and arrive only an hour after you leave on the same day (time zones can be tricky)!

As consumers, our story of flight began in 1914 with the creation of the world’s first commercial flight. It was from St Petersburg to Tampa in Florida, USA and would take almost a day by road, half that by rail and about two hours by boat. The flight took 23 minutes to cover the 34 kilometres across the bay. A ticket cost $5 and there was only the pilot and one passenger.

Fast forward a 100 years and 8 million passengers take to the sky every day on board over 100 000 flights around the world.

The number of flights in the sky over South Africa during the "evening rush" via Flight Radar

Early flights were cold, noisy, bumpy and by modern standards not that safe. In 2018 you can expect to have over 6 million safe trips for every fatality. 2011 was the safest year with 11 million passengers arriving safely for every fatality. That would be the equivalent of every South African travelling over Easter break and only five people not making it home. By comparison; 510 South Africans died on SA roads over Easter 2018.

Commercial air travel did not only see planes takes off, the credit card owes its popularity to the airlines that first issued air travel cards in the 1930s using the same process as they do today.

Air travel was exciting in the same way a circus act is; you love to watch it but you might think twice to try it yourself. That may seem crazy given the safety record mentioned above but, with rail and ship transport the norm, the aircraft presented an almost impossible improvement to what people knew.

To illustrate, consider the Elon Musk's SpaceX's vision of a rocket to get you anywhere on the planet in just 30 minutes. Amazing right, but would you be willing to book your next trip on one?

Despite the apprehension, aircraft improvements during the First and Second World Wars, and the multitude of pilots that were needed, allowed for the heyday of air travel in the 50s.

Propeller engines gave way to the jet engine and companies such as Boeing owned the skies.

National airlines were a source of pride and South Africa Airways remains one of the top 30 oldest with the oldest being the Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (Crown Airline Company) better know as KLM. It was created in 1919, just five years after the first commercial flight. SAA is the 23rd oldest. It formed in 1934.

Overseas holidays became a thing with many more Americans now able to fly anywhere in the US and the world. France was a favourite destination and remains to this day the most visited country in the world with over 80 million visitors per year. South Africa saw almost 9 million international visitors.

The benefits of tourism are great and as an industry every country should do more to encourage it. There are significant benefits to tourism, economic activity is the obvious one, but tourism fosters understanding between places in ways an article can’t. Matt Harding in his visits and silly dances around the globe showed that we are all far more alike than different and that almost everyone wants to leave a world that is going to be better for their children.

The flip side to that though is that international travel has a way of standardising things. You can can land at any airport in the world and you know what you can expect to find. Hotel groups, restaurants and tourist attractions around the world conform to best practices. In that respect it is a driver of progress but some may argue that it also dilutes the unique culture and possibly the reason for the undertaking the trip in the first place.

One aspect that is evident is that, no matter where you go, a primary consideration is mobile access, specifically data. You are either searching for the nearest Wifi hotspot or ensuring you have a local sim before you leave the airport.

Getting to your destination in the past was a significant part of the journey itself. We should bear in mind though that it was not that long ago when getting around the world in 80 days seemed like a mission impossible, whereas now anyone could do it in about 48 hours.

A long flight in the past was broken up into many legs and, more recently, flights would be routed via major hubs to both maximise efficiency and shorten the distance between final destinations.

Aircraft and, moreover, their engines have seen the rise in non-stop flights from the 14-hour limits to a new 19-hour flight that they will begin later this year between Singapore and New York using an Airbus A350-900.

If you are going to be sitting on a plane that long you will need a lot to make you comfortable and keep you occupied. Thankfully the new aircraft by Boeing and Airbus allows for business class benefits in economy with those in business and first class now enjoying full flat beds and even showers on some airlines.

Richard Branson tells of how it was easier to buy new aircraft with screens in every seat when he tried to raise the finance to simply add them to his existing fleet. You now not only have a screen; you have a full entertainment suite with movies, TV shows, music, games and even podcasts.

For some airlines, you can see what entertainment is available for your flight via an app and it will even remember how far you got watching a movie if you did not manage to finish it.

For aircraft, without screens, you need only use your own phone or tablet and log onto the aircraft Wifi and enjoy the movies that way.

The check-in process too is becoming more automated with online check-ins followed up with automated bag check-ins. Immigration control is moving to digital biometric checks which would speed up the queues when leaving and entering countries.

Airport services are getting better with access to transport and internal transfers via moving walkways and even autonomous rail links. Your phone may soon also be your guide inside the city size complexes getting you to your gate on time after a bit of shopping of course.

The future may include new aircraft designs, but don’t expect it soon. And you may hear about supersonic travel returning, but the cost and effort to reduce the flying time is unlikely to compare with simply booking a business class flight and taking a little longer to arrive relaxed and refreshed.

Flying electric vehicles may be a thing, but they would focus on travel within cities. The Hyperloop and high-speed rail may compliment short haul flights which are some of the most congested already anyway. But for the long haul trips for the foreseeable future our skies will be filled the aircraft shapes we have come to know in the last decades but with a lot more high tech to reduce the world to a global village.


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