Some Things Remain the Same (or Why No Progress in Air Travel)?

I have been flying around the world on a regular basis for the past 30 years. Some years few times a year, others way too much more than that.

And much of that travel, during the past 22 years, has been to further technology development as an entrepreneur.

In the past 20 years we have experienced incredible breakthroughs in so many realms of technology and its’ application to our daily lives. From our social interactions, our work life, and our health, we are surrounded by technology applications that could not have been predicted (by most) 20–30 years ago.

One of the “hot” areas right now are autonomous vehicles, yes, cars that drive themselves. It does not take much to be better driver than most humans, especially Israelis. I say that as a joke, but it is a deeply sad one. More human life is lost every year in Israel to road accidents than terrorism, and over the past 70 years as a state many more people have died in road accidents than all our horrific wars combined. But slowly tech is making progress in hopefully making our road travel safer. I will not make a prediction as to how quickly self-driving cars will become the norm, but many folks smarter than me are saying 5–10 years.

Now return to the air — the Tel Aviv/New York flying experience is basically the same from a user point of view as it was 30 years ago. Yes, there have been small improvements — even most El Al plans now have interactive individual entertainment systems, so I can choose the movies to watch during the 10–12 hour flight (although some still have old/new system, which has few movies but all starting at the same time…). 30 years ago there was one movie, and if you didn’t like you had to sleep or “read a book” (yes, many younger readers of this post will not connect to that old fashioned experience). Meals are the same (actually some of them are the same meals!). And the length of the flight is basically the same.

For the trekkies among us the “beam me up scotty” has remained an application of technology that we have not yet scratched the surface of — but trekkies also relate “Warp speed, Mr. Sulu.”

My question is — if teleportation is still challenging, why don’t we have warp speed?

When I was a kid the Concorde jet was put into commercial operation, and as I grew near JFK airport often saw it coming in for a landing. It was inspiring. And set up expectations that soon there would be industry wide quantum leaps in air travel.

Sure, Elon Musk is trying to get to space, Jeff Bezos has his interstellar plans — but what about “simply” making the flight time from NY to Tel Aviv 2–3 hours instead of 10–12 hours?

To remind you, the Concorde was the result of development efforts of France and England working together, building upon many decades of jet propulsion and overall flight tech development. Commercialized by Air France and British Air, for a period of time the flight time from New York — London or Paris was down to half the time of average flights for those routes.

And then…nothing. The Concorde was put out of commission in 2003 for many reasons (post 9/11 drop in air travel, high prices, crash of one flight), and while in operation remained way out of the reach for most folks who can afford to fly — in other words it failed to reach a critical mass.

The new plane models introduced over the years have kept the same basic structure and user experience. And air travel remains quite expensive, in relative terms.

As a comparison, an area of technology development and rapid technology development I was personally involved in was the revolution in telecommunications (which continues).

As some of you know, a phone call in 1994 from NY to Tel Aviv had an average cost of over $2 a minute. Just think about that. Even “long distance” calls within the United States used to cost $.25 a minute or more. And we needed to be tethered to a wire (although wireless in the house dates back to the 80s, there was no outside solution).

By focusing the tech development to serve the commercial application and the user experience the cost of a voice conversation between someone in NY and someone in Tel Aviv has dropped to “free” (no additional cost over the basic tech set up we all have). Many other areas of applied technology have achieved similar democratizing effects. Now we walk around with more computing power and bandwidth in our pockets than many Universities had 20 years ago!

But in the area of long distance air travel we are stuck in the same loop we have been since the dawn of the age of commercial aviation.

Yes, there are some examples of pricing dramatically changing, but most of those examples have either proved to be unsustainable (anybody remember People’s Express?) or are too esoteric in terms of routes to be interesting. The main commercial routes such as London-New York, New York — Paris, Tel Aviv — London, have remained the same. Expensive. Crowded. And the same amount of time. Even more now with TSA checks….

Air travel speaks to our desire to go far, but fast. Yet we have remained in freeze frame for over 50 years.

I am writing this from an El Al flight (New York to Tel Aviv). Even the A/V system has remained the same for over 15 years!

Yes, on some airlines and some routes there is wifi, the A/V systems are modernized — but that is like saying the peanuts are fresher and tastier. Nice, but peripheral to the core of the experience.

Before putting people in space, perhaps we should focus more of our efforts in making some major progress in the experience of long distance air travel. I am all in favor of VR/AR but nothing will replace (thank God) being there in person.

For now, most of us don’t have family, business, or touring to do on the moon.

But reducing the the price of flight from New York to Tel Aviv by 90% (or more, as happened in telecommunications) and the time by 90% would be a game changer. May it happen soon!

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Jacob Ner-David

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