How we’ll get there
Air-travel will remain a key component of the foreign holiday experience, although we will start to see some significant changes, both in the air and on the ground. A key change will be the development of lighter, quieter, cleaner and more fuel efficient aircraft that conform to both the environmental wishes of governments and the profit prerogatives of private companies. Low-cost flying is likely to expand further, both in terms of market share and geographical reach, and overall travel will continue to polarise between low cost and luxury segments, with the former stripping out all kinds of services (adding them back in for additional payment in some instances) while the latter continues to add personal pampering and indulgences for “free”.
Things could even polarise further, with airline travel becoming free at the one end with passengers paying to sit down, eat, drink or use the bathroom, while business class passengers club together and migrate by hiring small private jets operated by luxury hotel brands out of regional airports at the other. But before people contend with the on-board aircraft experience, there’s the small matter of navigating the airport. Currently, one of the most common complaints passengers have about flying is delayed flights and especially inaccurate or misleading information about departure times.
As mobile devices become (literally in the future), part of us surely a lack of information will be one thing that future passengers won’t have to contend with. If information and to some extent identity can be verified by mobile device then not only will queuing at a check-in counter disappear in the future, but so too will paper boarding passes.Even passports may one day become obsolete, being replaced in the first instance by ID verification via mobile phone (supplemented by automated biometric checking and malicious intent detectors).
The more people will be willing to surrender data about themselves to the providers, and become “trusted travellers” the faster the travel experience will become. Holiday companies that encourage customers to make use of personal data in a secure and confidential way will be able to provide a far more seamless and easy experience.
Indeed, the entire airport experience will one day be paperless and hence much simpler. Check-in will be via self-service terminals (not necessary at the airport) and bags will be dropped off either via unmanned terminals or via drive-through bag drops when passengers park their car at the airport.
As for the bags themselves, many will contain GPS so that not only the airport, but the passengers themselves can track bags in real time – much in the same way that FedEx etc. currently allow customers to do with parcels. BA is already testing reusable wireless luggage tags using e-paper displays that allow customers to create their own identifiers at home, although a more secure solution might be to have the tag embedded within the bag itself.
Overall then, more of the passenger and baggage processing will be done by passengers themselves, often outside the direct airport environs. For example, why not avoid baggage reclaim at the other end of your flight and have the airline deliver your bags to your rental car, hotel or resort for an additional fee. Unless, of course, unless you are flying First Class, in which case onward delivery will be free and you’ll also have the option of having your bags personally delivered to the ‘freshen up’ suite at the arrivals lounge or unpacked, ironed and placed directly in your hotel room.
The use of smart phones and tablet devices will revolutionise the airport experience in other ways too. Online maps will help guide passengers through airports, although even these might appear quaint if people start using augmented reality glasses to create 3D route maps. Such devices might not make much of an impact at Tenerife or Majorca airports, but even here customers will see a significantly more automated airport process and it would not be too far fetched to suggest that in a more distant future all physical airport signage would disappear because all airport information will be replicated virtually.
For example, we may see the disappearance of flight information boards because passengers would be told directly when their flight was boarding and from which gate by their mobile device and even manned boarding gates could disappear because ID would be checked automatically with bio-metric boarding gates.
Paper immigration forms could disappear too, as these would be online, filled in prior to boarding or on the plane itself and supplemented with biometric ID checks at kiosks. Virtual reality may make an impact in other areas too, We’re already seen Tesco launch a virtual store at Gatwick’s North Terminal that allows customers to pre-order groceries and other essentials to be delivered directly to their home on their return from holiday. This could work in the other direction too, with groceries and travel necessities from home being sent to hotels abroad. Ideal for families with children who are fussy (or xenophobic) eaters.
But if physical objects like check-in counters were to disappear, what could be put in their place? From being places to park, shop and be sent into the air, airports could recapture the magic they held at the start of the travel revolution by becoming places of discovery and entertainment, where people will want to spend time, rather than being forced to. At Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, for instance, there is a farmer’s market for passengers to graze, while Munich Airport has its own brewery. Other options to fill space and time might include ski-slopes (try ski equipment before you arrive at the mountain resort), tanning kiosks, swimming pools, hot tubs and spas (the last two are done already, but they tend to be located in premium airline lounges) and giant wall-sized screens showing video of various destinations (similar to the video installations used at LAXs Bradley International Terminal). Airports could even reinstate viewing platforms and link these to virtual reality flight simulators. In other words, airports will become destinations in their own right and will be increasingly redesigned to add to the holiday experience rather than detracting from it, which all too often is the case nowadays.
On-board aircraft change will be significant too. Entertainment options will start to mirror what happens on the ground, with access to almost anything at almost any time (paid for in Economy, free in Business and gift wrapped in First). By around 2025, it will be possible to access any movie or song ever made at 39,000 feet and we would certainly expect passengers to be able to access their own films, music or games via The Cloud or via their own devices (but displayed on seat-back screens, with some screens available in 3D or even hologrammatically) much sooner than that. On board Internet access will be ubiquitous and passengers will no longer be told to turn off electronic devices during take off and landing. Similarly, communications will mirror the access that passengers increasingly expect on the ground. For example, passengers might be able to send their holiday videos for editing back home while still in the air.
Although the technology exists, whether people will start to make voice calls during flights is uncertain. In 2012, the CEO of AeroMobile, which provides mobile connectivity to a large number of airlines predicted that around 1,000 aircraft would be fitted with the company’s systems by 2015, using international mobile rates, rather than the prohibitive costs of fitted phones. Anecdotal evidence suggests that not everyone is happy with the idea of sitting next to someone making a 21-hour phone call all the way from London to Sydney, but texting does seem more acceptable. Perhaps what will happen is that airlines will segment planes into voice and non-voice sections, much in the same way that some InterCity train operators separate carriages into quiet zones.
As for airline food, this too will polarise between choice and almost no choice at all – a sandwich (or none) at one end of the plane and line-caught salmon, grilled organic beef or Moroccan chicken at the other. Food will also offer a choice between good for you (healthy and light) and sheer indulgence (naughty but nice). It will split between free and paid-for depending on airline and seat class, although the option of buying business class food while travelling economy could become increasingly popular as people demand greater personalisation and flexibility throughout the flight experience. (When are low-cost airlines going to realise that at least some of the passengers squeezed in to the back of the plane in Economy also fly Business when working or are travelling on to a luxury hotel after the plane has landed?).
One further food development that could become more popular is the personalisation of food via the pre-booking of meals, or meal times, although some operators may ditch the idea of food service altogether, replacing it with vending machines or help yourself fridges in galley areas. Some may also locate these vending machines and fridges at boarding gates so that passengers can select their meals and drinks before they board their plane (please more rubbish bins by these gates too so that people can dump rubbish and unwanted sections of newspapers – thus saving weight – prior to boarding the flight).
One further big step could be the development of cabin baggage only flights. Currently, the price of air travel is hugely impacted by the cost of jet fuel, the burning of which is heavily influenced by the weight of passengers and their luggage. One way to reduce the amount of fuel burnt (and hence the cost of the ticket) could be to ban hold luggage altogether or charge passengers according to the combined weight of the passenger and their luggage. This idea has been tested by Samoan Airlines, but it has the potential to be rolled out by other airlines too One advantage for passengers (at least small ones) is simplification – everyone knows in advance that extra pounds will cost extra pounds and can pack accordingly. Alternatively, why not allow passengers with no checked luggage – or those with the smallest or lightest carry on bags – to board the aircraft first?
Clearly, carry-on only flights won’t work over long distances – or in colder climates when people need more clothes – but if a holiday is a week in Spain during July there’s no reason why many of the essentials cannot be pre-booked, bought locally and be placed in a hotel room awaiting the guest’s arrival or sent in advance by other modes of transport, as happened a century or more ago with travellers sending their luggage on ahead.
If we fly further into the future, things could get even more interesting.
We’ve already read about concepts such as glass-topped aircraft from Airbus (like bottomless boats but the other way up), planes flying in V-shaped formations (like geese) to reduce drag, planes with ‘clip on’ cabins, enabling a switch between cargo and passengers, smaller planes flying to even smaller airports (booked via passengers that aggregate into buyer groups on the Internet) and planes with touch screen windows that can display outside temperature and interactive journey maps. All very sci-fi, so how about pilotless planes? This thought fills most passengers with fear, but most passengers are experiencing hands-free flight already, at least during cruising altitude.
All very sci-fi, so how about pilotless planes? In Spring 2013, the first pilotless test flight took place in UK airspace as part of the ASTREA project (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation), using a standard Jetstream aircraft with banks of computers, sensors and high definition cameras. This thought fills most passengers with fear, but most passengers are experiencing hands-free flight already, often without knowing it, at least during cruising altitude.
Finally, there’s the future development of eco-friendly hybrid jet planes.
Hybrid planes would involve a combination of jet engine and electric power, conventional jet fuel being used for take off and landing, switching to environmentally friendly electric power once cruising altitude has been achieved. Or electric take off with the battery being recharged while cruising. A number of developments are at an early stage at the moment, but Siemens has created a two- seater aircraft powered by an electric series hybrid drive system which made its maiden flight in early 2013. It is estimated that a hybrid jet liner would use 25% less fuel than current aircraft, which means this type of technology is likely to be fast tracked and in partial use at least by 2025. The plane that the 2025 holidaymaker sits in will almost certainly not have been produced in the same way as in 2013. 3D printing will be used to produce many of the component parts with speed, precision and low cost as benefits. By 2050 it is not inconceivable that fully 3D printed planes will be flying the skies.
Other holiday transport used in the future will almost certainly include high-speed cross-country trains (many with sleeping carriages containing not only flat beds, but private cabins and even showers). This development will primarily be cost and convenience driven. Journeys to and from major cities can be frustrating partly due to the time spent getting to and from the airport. If the destination is another city, even one a thousand miles away, high-speed trains, especially ones that connect via moving platforms, can deliver passengers more or less point to point.
Alternatively, going out further into the future we might see the development of vacuum tube transport systems, which are a bit like the vacuum tubes used by old-fashioned department stores to move cash payments from one floor to another, but with people inside. One version of this, the “Hyperloop” envisages solar-powered, vacuum-sealed tubes, which could transport people and cars from Los Angeles to San Francisco in under 30 minutes at speeds up to 800 miles per hour, while the passengers inside would only experience G-forces similar to a car ride.
Another old form of transport that could enjoy a comeback is shipping. The holiday cruise industry is well established, but future ships will appeal both to a rapidly ageing population and to people seeking out safe discovery. Ships are relatively secure and minimise onward travel in that the sights can be brought to the ship. For those wanting to see foreign cultures without actually being exposed to them directly, ships, like coaches to some extent, offer a convenient form of voyeurism. Perhaps we’ll see glass bottomed (or at glass-tipped) cruise ships much in the same way that me might see aircraft with transparent roofs?
Finally there are cars. It is unlikely that cars (electric or otherwise) will threaten airplanes over long distances in the future, but once at a resort we’d expect more people, especially younger travellers in cities, organising their own sightseeing activities using car-sharing services (frequently electric or hybrid) rather than using traditional rental cars. Car2Go in the US is a shape of things to come in this regard.