Concorde 2.0, passport-less travel, AI travel agent bots, and more. What will commercial air travel look like in the year 2020?
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the thought of the year 2020 was almost unfathomable. Sure, we had the futuristic utopia of the Jetsons (or the dystopia of Blade Runner) to look forward to but it all still felt far too removed from the realities of the time. There was still a long way to go from our Commodore 64 to the space-age conveniences of The Jetsons’ Orbit City. 2050, maybe.
It was hard to imagine that our lives would change enough in the span of a few decades; to be dressed by a robot, in our personal spacecraft to get to work. Wouldn’t everyone be working from home by then? Would we even get vacation time? And if so, what would travel even look like?
The Need for Speed
Well, now that we’re only a few years away from that unfathomable year, both Blade Runner and The Jetsons don’t feel as far-fetched, but the reality is, commercial air travel has barely changed since the 1980s. In some ways, it can even be argued that it has regressed.
When the supersonic Concorde began shuttling the well-off between New York and London in a ridiculous three and a half hours in the late 70s, the future looked pretty clear. Speed would be key to propelling, even reinventing travel – until it wasn’t.
Barely into the new millennium, the Concorde, and its Mach 2.5 capabilities, was retired. The iconic droopy-nosed aircraft was becoming too expensive to operate and after the high-profile fatal crash in Paris in 2000, both British Airways and Air France decided to lay the plane to rest.
Even though the last decade of The Concorde’s run was plagued by slumping passenger numbers, its popularity among airplane buffs never waned. In 2003, Virgin head Sir Richard Branson even attempted to buy British Airways’ Concorde fleet, a motion that was eventually struck down by the government. Later that year, into the abyss it went.
Twelve years later, European plane maker Airbus obtained a patent for a new hypersonic passenger jet, one that would be able to fly four and a half times the speed of sound, or Mach 4.5. Described as ‘an ultra-rapid air vehicle’, Concorde 2.0 would be able to cross the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to London, in a single hour.
Powered by turbojets using hydrogen stored on board and a rocket motor, the aircraft would lift off vertically like a Space Shuttle, climbing to more than 100,000 feet before ramjets kick-in to propel it like a missile. The initial design would accommodate just 20 passengers (compared to Concorde’s 100 or so) in hammock-like seats, promising the ‘highest roller coaster ride in the world!’
So, will Concorde 2.0 be the aircraft of 2020?
Nope. In 2015, Airbus said it would take another 30 to 40 years to bring its idea to market. Again, 2050, maybe – if at all.
Forgot your passport and missed your flight? That’s so 2017…
If what’s already being trialed in Australia goes global, you may never have to visit another passport office again – ever. Facial recognition technology and fingerprint scanners will assume the role of manned immigration desks, virtually eliminating the need for passports.
A pilot version of the project is set to debut at Canberra Airport in July, currently only servicing limited international flights from Wellington and Singapore. If all goes well, it will be introduced at Sydney and Melbourne Airports in the fall, with a complete rollout of the ground-breaking program tentatively set for the spring of 2019.
Implementation details are still being ironed out but the idea is to funnel deplaning passengers through a corridor where their biometrics would be captured without travellers even having to stop. And like arriving from a domestic flight, once you collect your luggage, you are good to go.
In addition to the technology, Australia’s Seamless Traveller five-year initiative is made possible by the large amount of passenger data already available. Ticket information, travel history and criminal records will separate higher risk passengers from those with good standing and will only hold up those that garner more screening, at which point, human intervention will still play a role.
JFK Airport in New York began using facial recognition software earlier this month and Washington’s Dulles Airport is next, after trialing it briefly in 2015. Within a year or two, expect the new technology to be used at all international airports in the U.S., as announced by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the start of the year.
If you thought the introduction of full-body scanners violated your privacy rights, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
A Digital What?
Perhaps the most intrusive however is British Airways’ eerie ‘digital pill’. Distributed to passengers before take-off, the fast-acting biometric reader and transmitter will be able to gauge a traveller’s mood and relay the information back to the flight crew on board. Once absorbed, your flight attendant will know when you are hungry, thirsty, hot, cold or tired before you even hit the attendant call button.
AI Travel Agents
Waiting for your travel agent to get back to you with some options will be a thing of the past. The biggest buzz word in the travel industry for 2017 and beyond will be AI, or Artificial Intelligence.
Hilton, Kayak, Air Canada and others have begun to dabble in the somewhat new technology, improving everything from online search capabilities and chat platforms to know-it-all travel consultants (or chat bots) for an overall improved customer experience.
“We’re trying to create superhuman travel consultants who are AI-powered and can handle more trips per hour than a regular travel agent can. They can make dramatically better recommendations than normal travel agents.” – Paul English, Kayak co-founder
All in all, 2020 won’t look anything like the Jetsons or Blade Runner. The advancements will be more information/data based, enhancing a product’s look and feel. Expect cleaner forms of energy in the form of biofuels to power airplanes but don’t expect a drastically different plane. Concessions may need to be made between convenience and privacy but even the thought of never having to visit another passport office again would certainly make many consider.