In January of 1959 American Airlines flew the first commercial trans-continental flight. A 707 made its way from New York to Los Angeles in 5-1/2 hours. I just checked the United Airlines Web site to see how long it would take me today. UA flight 751 is set to leave Newark at 4:05 p.m. and arrive at LAX at 6:57 p.m. Adjusting for the three-hour time difference, that’s five hours and 52 minutes.
We live in a world in which we think technology has changed everything, what we do, how we do it and how long it takes. That apparently does not apply to flying or at least not to flight speed. And this despite the fact that there was a live commercial demonstration of the availability of the technology to speed up our flights as far back as 1976 when the Concorde went into service.
Future Tense* put together an event yesterday in Washington D.C. in which scientists, aviators, government officials and entrepreneurs tried to answer the question “Why Does It Still Take 5 Hours to Fly Cross-Country?’
There are still some technical challenges, one of which is noise. Because of the noise associated with supersonic flight there are regulations in the U.S. prohibiting supersonic jets over land. So a commercially viable transcontinental flight would have to involve a low boom option. One of the participants raised the possibility that because of this it may at some point in the future take less time to fly from LA to Japan than from LA to New York.
But perhaps a bigger obstacle is economics. Richard Aboulafia, vice president, analysis of Teal Group, noted that airlines operate on “razor-thin” margins. (This apparently despite charging us for things like checking baggage and an inch or two of extra leg room). Because of that he said that their focus has been on fuel efficiency, not faster flights.
So there is no real demand from the airlines to go faster. And it is equally questionable whether it is a priority for the traveling consumer. The availability of multiple services on the Internet that enable price comparison has turned many fliers into bargain shoppers. Issues like convenience, even such things like onboard Wifi, are more likely to be on the average consumer’s radar screen than flight time.
It is also questionable how important actual flight time is when so much of travel time ends up being about getting to the airport, waiting to check in, waiting to go through security, waiting to board, and alas, waiting for the bags that you probably paid to check to arrive. Surely on less than cross-country flights, the actual time in the air may be insignificant compared to the time eaten up by airport over-capacity and inefficiency.
The Future Tense event did surface some interesting things that might be on the horizon. Boom Technology is a Denver-based startup with plans to build 40 passenger supersonic jets. David Lackner, North American Head of Research and Technology for Airbus, talked about creating an Uber-type of service using helicopters. Even further afield is Lightcraft Technology which envisions the possibility of using beamed energy propulsion to propel transports.
Where there is a demand for speed is in the high end of the market. There are, as there was with the Concorde, some folks who are going to be willing to pay a premium for speed. The question is whether there are enough of them to support a commercially-viable operation. It seems clear that there are going to be faster options for flying. What isn’t clear is whether they will ever scale to the point of being available to most travelers. I didn’t hear anything that made me think that was imminent.
The Future Tense event “Why Does It Still Take 5 Hours to Fly Cross-Country” can be viewed here.
*Future Tense is a partnership between New America, Arizona State University and Slate magazine to explore emerging technologies and their transformative effects on society and public policy.