Use technology to make the skies friendlier for business

Now that Congress has lifted the furloughs for air traffic controllers, it’s back to business as usual for vacationers — and back to the same old grind that business airline users have seen for the past 30 years.

The marketing gurus in aviation have historically focused on the fun you and the airline are having. Only one company — Trans World Airlines, which merged with American in 2001 — ever really tried the business-first approach, with the quasi-military sounding, “They have just one mission … yours.”

These days, slogans are less ambitious, like Delta’s campaign from 2010, “Keep Climbing.” That sounds like something you might whisper to yourself at take-off, rather than a real statement about the effectiveness of air travel.

Small wonder, then, that the changes aircraft manufacturers have in the works are aimed at saving money for airlines or distracting passengers from the true drudgery of flying. They really have very little to do with the business user.

The BBC recently reported on changes Airbus predicts for the aviation industry by 2050. Among the ideas Airbus has brewing for the aircraft of 2050 are gliding landings to improve fuel economy, biofuels to reduce carbon emissions, and fancier cabins with features like virtual reality and transparent ceilings so that passengers can see the stars.

(For my money, a virtual-reality transparent ceiling might be enough. I’m not sure I’ll feel particularly secure with a Jetsons-style clear bubble overhead instead of a good old-fashioned roof.)

Responding to Airbus’ airplane of the future, the Beeb pointed out that the only real innovation in aviation over the past decade or two was a shift to lightweight composite materials to cut fuel costs. They questioned, rightly, whether the next 30 or more years will see only superficial changes to aircraft when the same period previous saw the development (and the demise) of the Concorde and supersonic transport.

Look: Better cabin appointments and fuel efficiency are all well and good, but they make very little real difference to the business user. The only way for aviation to keep pace with the speed of business is to cut down the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B.

And yet, speedy travel is still not enough for today’s business. Let’s look at our previous example of the Concorde. The Concorde is the only truly fast plane ever built, and it failed ultimately because it still was not fast enough for the market that needed it — bankers flying between New York City and London.

(The French Concorde was more of an act of vanity, with far too few departures to make it anything other than a white elephant.)

Even in that very focused undertaking, the flight was just too slow. The banking business — in fact, most business — is now routinely conducted almost entirely electronically. Electronic technology has made massive leaps forward in speed in the same time that airplane builders are thinking about things like clear roofs for star-gazing travelers. It’s practically a billboard that the industry is giving up on business users.

This isn’t the time to give up. In August 2012, the Labor Department reported that U.S. labor productivity grew by 1.6 percent annually at the second quarter, up from a negative 0.5 percent in the first quarter. This past March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that nonfarm business sector labor productivity decreased at a 1.9 percent annual rate during the fourth quarter of 2012. We’re bouncing around at a rate that hasn’t changed much in years.

How does this tie in to air travel? If we are going to get out of our economic growth miasma, we have to think differently. Doing what we've always done is not sustainable.

Now, what matters is not at the edges of the technology. The very fastest or very slowest means of getting there are irrelevant. It's the middle that makes the difference. If we are going to become more efficient, it's not supersonic aircraft, bullet trains, or self-driving cars that will get us there. Nor is it tricked-out airplane cabins and other distractions that offer a superficial sense of progress without actually offering a useful benefit. We need to make use of technology while in flight.

A number of airlines are toying with paid WiFi on aircraft. To their surprise, few people are willing to pay for the high-speed access. I don’t know why they’re surprised. After getting to the airport hours before departure time, paying baggage fees and enduring frequent runway delays, I don’t want to part with more cash for high-speed Internet. And I especially don’t want to do it when I know that Google could offer 10 MB to my home in Austin, Texas, for free.

Instead of looking at it as yet another revenue stream, airlines should consider offering WiFi for free. Then business users will get the most of their flight time. That’s far better than supersonic flight. It’s flying as we all know it, augmented with the speed of the Internet.

And while we’re at it, how about more power ports onboard? It’s such a simple thing. If I can turn my seat into my workspace, I’ll get a lot more out of my flight. I really don’t want to stare up at the night sky through a transparent ceiling, or wear virtual-reality glasses to pretend I’m not late for a meeting because of flight delays.