Air travel sucks so here’s an alternative future

15.32, Thursday 31 Dec 2020

So, that’s it, a year without flying. I didn’t expect I would ever say that. We landed into Heathrow a year and a day ago, at the end of 2019, returning from Christmas with family in Australia.

Flying is a miracle and also flying increasingly sucks.

To itemise:

Legroom has been decreasing for 70 years. Planes continue to be noisy and crowded, a stressful environment. Each act of terrorism, happened or hindered, has added a permanent step to the security checks. Yes it’s necessary I guess, but my goodness it means that the airport experience is dehumanising and adds substantial time to the travel. Now there are masks too, the need to get tested before flying, potentially self-isolating at both ends, and of course the risk of an unexpected pandemic outbreak meaning a planned trip will be cancelled or you won’t be able to get home.

Flying is like broadcast TV (replaced by streaming), newspapers (unbundled and replaced by social media and the rest), PCs (smartphones), etc, where there’s a decades-long boiling frog transition until everybody looks up and collectively says, you know this is really bad, maybe we could just not do this, and do something else instead.

So what happens instead of today’s air travel? What’s the long-term adjustment?

Business travel goes private.

I can see business travel changing radically.

After 2020, as many trips as possible will replaced by Zoom (and gradually businesses and the ecosystem will reorganise such that this doesn’t add friction). Even after this particular pandemic is over, carbon accounting is only going to get more pervasive from here on out, and cutting down on flights is an easy win.

The remaining trips will still need to happen. But how?

Business travel is sensitive to time, and not enormously sensitive to cash. Businesses care about comfort in-as-much as the employees are well rested at the other end, but the travel doesn’t need to be luxurious.

So the current “high end” of business travel - cabins, nice lounges - doesn’t really help. The airport itself is still the big time cost.

What would it mean to re-think not just the flight, but the end-to-end experience?

Maybe you could do away with security entirely if you had high trust in every passenger. Maybe you could route around big airports by using small ones.

What I imagine is that every big company has its own airline of private jets. If you’re a Nike employee, you fly with a dozen other Nike employees. Result: No big airport faff, no security, you get picked up from home and driven straight to the plane at a local airfield where you board directly.

Inside the jet, it looks less like a plane and more like a co-working space crossed with a high-end hotel lobby. There are places to work and places to sleep. This is because the flight takes a little longer: you have to hop between regional airports to pick up/drop off passengers and refuel.

All routes are dynamically calculated; there is no schedule. “Booking” a flight means putting in a request to be routed. The planes are always in the air.

(I imagine that there are actually only one or two underlying operators of the planes: it’s a virtual private fleet, except if the company is Google or Apple or something.)

Cargo for the rest of us.

Without business travel, economy has to lean into the suckness.

I remember hearing somewhere that each cabin is priced to pay for the whole plane. Meaning: if any of first class, business class, or economy is full, the rest is gravy. So what happens in the future where the premium cabins get replaced by private jets? Those economy seats are going to get really squeezed in.

Occasionally you see hear about those standing seats – but that’s just an incremental reduction of legroom. You’re going to hit limits of how many people can get on and off the plane in the turnaround time (or in an emergency), plus getting up and down aisles to feed people, etc. So let’s really go for it.

Replace the top of the plane with a scaffold that can hold shipping containers (or some other new standard).

Fill the containers with standing seats, and load all meals and entertainment right by the seat. When it’s time to board, load people into the containers, and swap the old containers out for the new ones with cranes.

(The old containers can be disinfected and restocked at your leisure, further reducing turnaround time.)

Safety’s a doddle. Each container has its own emergency exit and slide. But there’s no route to the pilot or the other passengers.

For entertainment, give everyone VR headsets. Who needs a window or personal space when they feel like they’re on their own in an empty theatre?

Bonus points: provide a choice of containers with different seating. Standing seats in some, capsule hotel-style beds in others, salt-water baths/sensory deprivation pods in a few more.

If you like, shunt the containers around like cargo: making a flight connection is a matter of bundling passengers with the same destination together, and moving them directly between scaffold-planes at hub airports. Put a container on the back of a truck and take it all the way to the destination hotel, if you like.

Slow travel.

While I might be able to tolerate being treated like cargo for an hour or two, I’m not convinced I would want to do it long haul – but I also don’t want to give up visiting long haul locations. So what gives?

If vacations weren’t so short, it wouldn’t be so important for long haul travel to also be quick. And maybe the trend towards remote work is relevant here.

Instead of taking a 2 week vacation, what if I took 6 weeks – but spent a month of that working remotely, or out of a regional office. I’d love to work during the day, but have a completely different country on my doorstep for evenings out and weekend hiking. Could that work? Has anybody tried negotiating something like this in their employment contract, and how would it be represented as a benefit?

Assuming that could work… perhaps travel by ship would be appropriate, or train, or airship. Dirigibles are due a comeback, I’m sure. It might take a few days or a couple weeks to cross the Atlantic, but treat it as working time with a Starlink internet connection, and maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Cruise ships are probably out, floating super spreader events that they are. So, avoiding those pandemic Petri dishes, maybe small yachts made just for coastal waters?

I have a completely unfounded hunch that self-driving yachts might provide much greater upside for AI than self-driving cars.

Perhaps, one day, there will be flocks of robot-piloted electric yachts on the open water, hopping auto-harbour to auto-harbour each summer around the Mediterranean, the whole season for a circuit; work and Zoom calls aboard, and after the day is done, while the boat recharges, a plate of frites with big crunchy crystals of salt, hot on the tongue, sitting in the navy light of the late evening on a wicker chair outside at the quayside cafe, the murmur of tourists and nomad workers and residents too, a cold glass of white, the dots of condensation gathering into larger beads, and coming together again, there, a droplet which momentarily catches and refracts the orange glow of the low setting sun, before it runs down the glass and down the stem and onto my finger where I feel its coolness.

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