The Future of Aviation

Following on from my earlier post about scenarios for the future of aviation, I’m still thinking about flying. In terms of no-brainers, the three highest impact events are likely to be a high (or volatile) oil price, legally binding emission regulations and either massive growth or massive collapse of passenger demand caused by some kind of external factor – most probably security fears (another 9/11 style-event) or the state of the global economy.

Industry consolidation looks reasonably certain, especially if you have some cash-rich nations (oil producers or Asian sovereign wealth funds for example) flying alongside some very indebted nations and carriers. Growth of low-cost seems a reasonable assumption, along with the development of low-cost cargo and low-cost long haul, although as the oil price rises (or carbon costs bite) I think you’d expect some level of substitution towards ground based transport for short-haul.

Growth of technology is another big one. This would cover everything from an expansion of virtualization (less need to physically travel) through to greater cockpit automation and even UAVs (less need for pilots arguably). Technically we could have pilot-less planes right now, but I suspect that he general public couldn’t quite stomach the idea at 30,000 feet.

Technology would also take costs out at the bottom level and add to overall experience at the other. For example, how about an airline seat that recognizes who you are when you sit down and selects favorite films, music and so on (not much different from high-end car seats that recognize individual drivers and adjust themselves (and the radio station).

On the last flight I took (LHR-JFK) last week the steward had written my food order and frequent-flyer status on a bit of paper and stuck it to the kitchen wall with masking tape. I’m sure there’s a better way of doing that!

You’d also expect technology to have a huge impact on aircraft design, creating lighter and stronger structures, more efficient engines (lower fuel burn so greater range) and fewer emissions, although I’m not convinced that this would, in itself, transform the industry. Smaller airports with smaller planes? I can’t see this making much of an impact either.

Overall I’m starting to see two potential scenarios. The first is more or less business as usual with global growth in passenger numbers sitting alongside higher operating costs and rising congestion, especially at airports.  This scenario could split, with a rather nasty no-frills industry at one end (think of the stress and discomfort of flying with Aeroflot in the 1970s) sitting next to pure decadence at the other (think of the dawn of flying, with jet travel as the ultimate luxury experience – but only if you could afford it).

The second broad scenario is more or less collapse. Fuel costs, carbon legislation, terrorist attacks or virtualization wipe out most of the industry and it’s back to the 1950s with a resurgence of rail, long-distance sea journeys and localized road transport.

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