You read a lot about "technology" these days, and sometimes the pace of change is almost overwhelming. But is travel being changed as much as all the publicity might suggest? The short answer is that technology, in a broad sense, is already affecting our travel, and you'll see a lot more change in the near future.
Past Is Prologue
The biggest technology impact of most of our lifetimes has already matured: The Internet quickly came to dominate price comparisons, buying, and information throughout almost all of travel. Another relatively mature tech application – GPS – similarly has become an integral part of the way we travel and the ways we buy travel. Ditto the widespread adoption of "smart" phones with their combined phone/computer capabilities and zillions of "apps." Future developments will, at best, tweak the systems a bit, but I see no sea changes.
Other tech developments, however, are still being implemented. Although not yet ubiquitous, they'll be increasingly important.
Up Next: Wi-Fi Everywhere
Virtually universal Wi-Fi is probably the next technology to reach full maturity. You want to travel with a computing device and you want that device to communicate through the Internet. You already see Wi-Fi widely available in hotels, restaurants, coffehouses, airports, and such. The main remaining question is how much of it will be "free" and how much will be for a fee.
Although a bit slower to catch on than in ground locations, airborne Wi-Fi is the current "big thing" in major airlines' fleets.
- Air Canada, AirTran, Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, United, US Airways, and Virgin America have installed or are installing Aircell's Gogo system. Gogo relies on ground-based transmitter/receiver stations, providing robust coverage over the US and Canadian border areas, but not over water.
- Pre-merger Continental, JetBlue, and Southwest opted for satellite-based systems, as have a handful of European and Asian lines. Satellites provide access worldwide, including over oceans. U.S. lines with big overseas operations will obviously have to rethink satellite Wi-Fi. Unresolved, at least so far, is how the merged Continental/United and AirTran/Southwest will rationalize their incompatible systems. Nevertheless, you can expect to see Wi-Fi on more and more of your flights – and you'll continue to see fees for that service, except possibly for international first class travelers.
The Payment Battleground
By far the biggest tech battle – in both dollars and numbers of people affected – is coming in the vexatious arena of payments. Among the cross-currents:
- Most big U.S. banks have still not committed to providing their traveling customers with dual-mode "magnetic stripe" and "chip-and-pin" credit cards that would facilitate use in the increasing number of countries where many payment systems no longer accept the U.S. stripe standard. This one has me stumped – customers want it, the technology is mature, and the incremental costs of manufacturing dual-mode cards is trivial. Why are the banks stalling?
- Maybe, instead of chip-and-pin, U.S. banks think that the real future is in cards equipped with RFID chips that allow them to be read just by passing them near a reader instead of making physical contact. This is a proven technology that already works well in transit applications, some merchandising, employee ID, and with U.S. passports and "enhanced" drivers' licenses. But lots of you are worried – justifiably, in my view – about the ability of hackers to access sensitive credit-card information from your RFID. Though RFID partisans tout their system's "security" features, I remain impressed by the speed with which hackers can crack even the most "secure" systems.
- In still another aspect to the battle, the smartphone folks are really pushing the ability of their hardware to serve as payment instruments. Presumably, this would require phones to incorporate RFID chips, but maybe not – maybe the Wi-Fi or even wireless phone network capability could be tweaked to provide this service. Tap your phone, make a buy.
- And the possibility that smartphones could become payment systems raises huge questions about who will control the payment stream. Specifically, will the phone companies concentrate strictly on debit transactions? Will they collaborate with banks as credit providers or will they challenge banks? Will sellers try to force you into debit rather than credit payments so they can cut credit-card fee payments to banks? Certainly, a battle looms about transaction-based "reward" systems: In different payment streams, what will happen to those "miles for purchase" programs that are so attractive to consumers and so profitable for airlines?
- Another new payment development is the recently announced link-up between PayPal and BookIt under which customers can use PayPal to buy all kinds of travel. Sellers like PayPal because its transaction fees are lower than banks' fees. But as far as I can tell, the PayPal business model has no room for "rewards," so the question remains whether customers will forego their "free" miles.
Clearly, this battle involves high stakes for some very big players. I can't possibly predict the outcome or outcomes, but I can promise to follow developments closely.
The "100 Years War"
The slowest new-tech travel/transportation introduction in memory – maybe the slowest, ever – is the glacial pace of "NextGen" air traffic control. The satellite-based technology is mature, and in fact is already operational in a few places on a few airlines. And it's a win-win development for both consumers and airlines: It can cut fuel consumption, reduce delays, and generally improve reliability across the entire ATC system. It can equip virtually any airport in the country for almost-all-weather operations, at a small fraction of the cost of the elaborate ILS systems previously required.
Why so slow, then? The government has gone slowly because – well – it's the government, which has been notoriously cautious about ATC development, generally. And the airlines are procrastinating because of the cost of the new equipment required on each airplane – even as they know that the new system will wind up saving them billions in fuel costs. Will we ever get robust NextGen? Yes. When? That's anybody's guess.
New Engines, New Planes
Last year, Airbus started taking orders for its "A320 neo" series of narrow-body planes, with the "neo" standing for "new engine options." To be introduced in 2016, planes with the new engines (plus a few other tweaks) will provide "up to a 15 percent" improvement in fuel consumption over current designs.
So far, Boeing has responded with a somewhat sour grapes announcement that the new engines will merely allow Airbus to match fuel economy with Boeing's current models. Beyond that, Boeing has long struggled with the choice between hanging new engines on its venerable 737 product line and developing an entirely new airplane in the 150- to 200-seat size. Every week, I see some outside "expert's" prediction as to which way Boeing will go, but Boeing's only concrete reaction so far is to increase the production of 737s in an effort to sell off the large backlog of orders before they become obsolescent.
The good news here is that, one way or another, both companies will be selling planes that are more fuel efficient than today's best models. The bad news is that, so far, neither company seems to be interested in providing adequate space for its sardine-packed customers in economy class.
And the other bad news is that I see no realistic alternatives to hydrocarbons as a means to power airliners. Whether taken from the ground or grown as biofuels, no other materials can come close in terms of efficiency per pound of fuel carried. I hope I'm wrong, but if so, it will be long after I'm gone.