Friday, February 15, 2013

The Near Term Future of Flight

On any given day, there are 60,000 passengers passing through an average airport, giving those in North Carolina a population between that of Chapel Hill and Asheville or collectively about the size of Durham, the state’s fourth largest city.

Globally, within three years, the number of airline passengers each year will reach 3.6 billion, an amount equal to half of the earth’s population.  Airline traffic is projected to double by 2030 when I could be just shy of my mom’s age now.

In 1948, the year I was born, there were fewer than 15 million airline passengers in the United States on 2 million departures.  By age 19 when I took my first airline flight, a Pan Am 707 from the Rocky Mountains to New York in 1967, annual airline passenger traffic in the US had grown to 142 million taking nearly 5 million departures.

Between my first flight and when I turned 30 on the eve of airline deregulation, passenger miles had grown an average of 12% a year, according to analysis by Doug Henwood, a former conservative who now blogs at Left Business Observer.Future of Flight

Since then, according to Henwood, airlines have averaged less than 4% growth a year.  Before I turned 30, planes were 57% full.  Since then they have averaged 68% full and over the last three years 82%.

Henwood makes the case that airline deregulation has been a disaster not only for the airlines and passengers, but most certainly for many communities.

Fewer planes with higher occupancy may be better for the environment though.  Climate change calculations estimate that when I fly round-trip from the east coast to visit my daughter and grandsons in the Rocky Mountains, I pollute the atmosphere with about 2 tons of carbon, slightly more than I discharge per year driving.

If I take a 6,000-mile cross country trip to see them, as I do at least once each year, I discharge the equivalent in carbon of a cross-country round-trip flight.

Today, 42% of U.S. adults report traveling by air for leisure purposes and 48% for business purposes.  Air is the mode of arrival for less than 10% of the visitor volume for the typical destination community or state.

According to the updated study, Flying Into The Future, another major shift in air travel over the last few years has been the shift to using smartphones.  More than 70% of airline passengers have smartphones compared to slightly more than 50% of the general public.

A third of passengers now use smartphones for check-in and 40% more than in 2010 are using these devices for mobile boarding.  In three years, the number of airlines using mobile check-in etc. will increase from 50% to 90%.

It wasn’t too long ago that people couldn’t imagine smartphones and tablets replacing computers as a means to conduct banking and now 9 out 10 do.

The same was true not long ago about booking air travel via website but today 74% of passengers do so and 70% of airline executives believe mobile apps will soon be equally dominant. Already, 9 out of 10 passengers want mobile flight updates.

Technologies such as Passbook and near-field communication chips will mean that most of us will merely tap our smartphone to check-in or board a flight and integration of technologies will greatly smooth out clearing security.

Airlines are now putting actual servers aboard aircraft to make it easier and less expensive and cumbersome to use devices via Wi-Fi while in flight, not only for passengers but for crew members using them for company purposes.

However, as my friend and fellow-blogger and former DMO exec Bill Giest writes, “it’s really all about the juice,” so I hope airports and airplanes will now make it easier to charge up devices onboard and while sitting in boarding areas.

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