Monday, 19 August 2013

The Future of Travel - Part 1: In the Air

Well, it's been a while again.  But as I'm still at home, I've not had a lot worth writing about - plenty going on in the world but, for me, insufficient interest to comment on it.  Somehow, nothing has really captured my imagination enough to tear myself away from the daily grind of trying to find work, trying to ignore the constant kick-backs from potential employers, and trying to keep body and soul together, and for the sake of my beloved wife and kids trying to keep an optimistic mind-set when in reality my guts have been churning with sheer terror at the prospect of long-term unemployment.  I can't remember the last time I had a proper night's sleep.....  lying there trying to come up with a viable Plan B and listening to their steady breathing (and the more or less constant city traffic) is not conducive to a good kip.  Ania I know has suffered many many restless nights too, for the same reasons.  Anyone reading this who's been in the position knows exactly what I'm talking about so I won't elaborate further.  Anyone who hasn't should thank their lucky stars and hope that good fortune continues to hold.  Enough said.

Anyway, glad to report, things seem to be looking up.  Again I won't elaborate, in case I unconsciously put the mockers on something, but I had a flying visit to London the other week.  Literally, a day trip: I left home about 4:30 a.m. and got back after midnight......a long old day but useful.  I took my usual budget airline, WizzAir, to Luton, then spent an interesting and potentially profitable day running around London using a surprisingly efficient (and punctual) Network Rail service, London Underground and DLR.   For a low-price carrier WizzAir is not at all bad.  The planes are quite new and in good nick, prices reasonable without being exactly cheap, and the list of payable extras seems shorter than some I've seen.  They're also pretty punctual - I've used them on the route several times now, over the past few years, and never had a delay that wasn't air-traffic control related.  The airline is based out of Hungary but operates throughout Europe, linking the emerging Eastern European traveler with the Western European business and vacation centres, and it seems to be growing in popularity.  Certainly both my flights were fully booked, and I've rarely seen many empty seats on earlier trips.  I certainly recommend them.

Of course, I have little to compare them against, as for most of my travelling life I've used the big boys like BA, Lufthansa, Air France and LOT.  Vacation trips have typically been either on those airlines too (benefiting from accumulated Air Miles) or at least on aircraft chartered from them by the travel firms and thus offering pretty much identical service to my business flights.  So low cost carriers are a relatively new experience for me, and so far the experience has been good.  Aside from WizzAir, I used Sky Europe a couple of times, into Stansted, before they went bust several years ago, and another Polish carrier OLT Express.  That one was really good - the year before last I flew from Gdansk to Warsaw for a fare of PLN20 I think (against a normal train fare six times as much), and traveled in a brand spanking new Airbus A320 that had much more leg-room and comfort than seems normal for low cost carriers.  The airline was only about two months old, and as well as guaranteeing at least 20% of its seats on any given flight would cost only PLN25 (with the remaining seats still cheaper than the likes of WizzAir and certainly BA etc were offering), it also had a related car hire company that provided for a Mini (sadly not the Cooper version) for PLN50 a day.  Sadly, the airline closed down a few weeks later - not because it was broke but because its CEO and founder was arrested and subsequently banged up on fraud and money-laundering charges.

I've never had the pleasure of using EasyJet, but I've heard mixed reviews from people I know who have. My kids flew to see me here a few years back, when they operated a Luton - Warsaw route, and said it was pretty good.  Ryanair also fly here now, from Stansted, but are using the new Modlin airport, which is about 60km north of Warsaw with no transport links to speak of (unless you want to pay in excess of a hundred zlotys for a taxi and sit in traffic for the best part of two hours).  I won't use them on principal - I've never met anyone who has had a pleasant experience with them, and any airline that is prepared to even consider ripping out the on-board toilets to increase its seating capacity and increase its profits, at the expense of its passengers' already minimal comfort, is not for me, thank you very much.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject matter of this little epistle - the future of travel.

There seems to be lot of discussion and thought going into the way our traveling lives are heading - not just air travel, but the railways, road travel and cars, and more esoteric stuff that could be lifted straight from classic SF stories.  There is of course little or no agreement on any of this, so what will actually happen is anyone's guess, and in this respect yours is as good as mine.  About the only part where there is general agreement is that more and people will want (or need) to travel in the future, especially in the emerging markets (China and India in particular), and that the existing infrastructures - that's largely road and rail networks and all that goes with them - can hardly cope with existing demand never mind that of the future.

Take air travel, for example.  For as long as I can remember (and this is going back to my teen years, not just since I started globetrotting for a living), there have been discussions about the airport capacities in the south of England, and how there is not enough of it, and what is the best way of dealing with it.  I can remember Gatwick when there was only one quite small terminal building - in the early to mid 70s my mates and I used to drive over there some evenings, park outside and go to the bar inside the building for a few beers and watch the planes come and go.  Even earlier, when I was at school, probably around 1964 - 65, I remember my mum taking me there on the train sometimes plane spotting....great fun for an 11 year old kid, blissfully unaware that his undiagnosed colour blindness would prevent him ever becoming the pilot he dreamed of being.  I remember too going to play a football match once at a village quite close to the airport: our convoy of cars took a wrong turning somewhere, and ended up at the side of the runway as a Boeing 707 taxied past us.....God knows where the boundary fence was - we saw neither it nor a gate.  We found the pitch eventually, went a goal down after about 20 seconds to a freak wind assisted kick from the opposing goalkeeper sailing over my head into my goal (huge embarrassment!) but ended up winning 8-1.  I spent the rest of the game plane spotting....

Heathrow then already had multiple terminals but only one runway, and there was a lot of public discussion before a second was finally opened.  Today, there are 5 terminals (six if you count the T5 annexe) but it's still overcrowded and still only two runways.  For the last 10 years at least there has been a succession of proposals, protest movements and public enquiries, all trying to find an acceptable way of increasing capacity still more - a new runway is definitely needed but no-one can agree where to put it, and at least one more terminal would help the overcrowding.  No simple answers I know, but I can see from experience that more people use the place now than were doing so when I started flying in and out every week back in 2000.

Stansted didn't exist when I was a kid, except possibly as a small local airport for fun-flyers, but the boom in the 1970s and 80s in package holidays to the Med and elsewhere put paid to the quiet life for the local population as it expanded dramatically to cope with the new demand (as did Gatwick and Luton).  The M11 motorway link to Cambridge, running right past Stansted airport added to it, as did the improved rail service from Liverpool Street.  It's now a major airport for the holiday trade, and the UK base for Ryanair - so very busy: almost on a par with Gatwick.

But still it's not enough.  More capacity is needed, but where do you put it?  Ah, that's the rub!  When I was at school, there was a proposal to drain the marshes at Foulness, in the Thames estuary, and build an offshore airport there.  It never happened of course, and the plans were dropped as being technically unfeasible and vastly expensive, with efforts being poured instead into the expansions noted above.  But recently they've been resurrected by the Mayor of London no less, in light of technological improvements (not least in high speed trains) that make it perhaps more feasible if more expensive.  It's a "watch this space" issue - at the moment the Blonde Bombshell has no real support for it, and the government (and opposition) have both flatly refused to consider it - though without offering any viable alternative to the capacity problem. Which is what you would expect......

Part of the problem here is that the plane makers themselves can't agree on how air travel is going to develop.  Most airlines seem to be going the low-cost route, at least for short-haul flights, and the catering on offer clearly demonstrates this - very rarely now do you get a hot meal in economy class.  Some national airlines are now providing snacks (ham rolls, Mars Bars, that sort of thing) instead, and charging for them, which I find disappointing: it seems to me that if you are paying appreciably more for your seat on BA or whatever, either through choice or because there is no low-cost alternative on your route, then the least you can expect is a decent bite to eat on the flight included in your ticket cost.  Mr. O'Leary has a lot to answer for me in this respect.....

But the two leading plane makers - that's Boeing and Airbus - differ in their perceptions of how air travel, generally, is going, especially on those lucrative long haul flights.  Both manufacturers provide similar "small" planes for the short haul stuff - the Boeing 737 and variants against the A319, 320 and 321.  I've used them all extensively, as probably every airline operates one or the other (and often both), and they are much of a muchness.  My preference is for the Airbus range, not because I'm a good European but because to me they're a touch more refined and comfortable than their older American rivals.  But for long haul, the manufacturers have different visions, and have developed different planes to realise them.  Airbus are big fans of the hub system, where you have major airports serving as essentially a transfer centre for smaller destinations - think Heathrow, Frankfurt, Dubai, New York JFK.  So they have built the A380 monster, the only fully double decker aircraft in the world to shuttle the biggest number of passengers between hubs, where they can transfer to smaller, local flights (or trains or whatever) to complete their journeys.  Boeing, meanwhile, reckon that passengers would rather travel on smaller planes to more local airports, so they've come up with the 787 Dreamliner, allegedly the most advanced airliner in the world, largely made of composite plastics and with bigger windows, better air conditioning, better ambient lighting and so on, for a more comfortable ride.  I'll ignore the multi-year delay in the delivery cycles, and even the grounding of the entire delivered fleet of 50-odd aircraft earlier this year after a couple of fires on (thankfully landed) aircraft. It's a nice looking plane, instantly recognisable when it flies in and out of my local airport (LOT have a couple flying and more on order) by the narrow, gracefully swept-up wings - and the noise.  For the most advanced aircraft in the world it makes a hell of a row.....much worse then any other plane flying in and out of Warsaw, and louder than the 747s and 380s and the other big boys I've seen and heard elsewhere.

But both of them are the traditional cylinder with wings and multiple engines hanging from under the wings. They may be made of the latest, lightest materials to improve fuel economy - and I recognise how important this is - but they don't capture my imagination in the way, as a kid, I expected planes to look by the 21st century.  We all expected Concorde to be the first of a new generation of supersonic planes that would link the most far-flung destinations in a few hours flying, but it never really happened and the plane is gone now, confined to museums.  There have been no successors as plane makers and airlines have gone the relatively easier high loading but slower route....which seems to me a shame.  There has been talk for years of hypersonic planes going from London to Australia in a couple of hours, but they're still very much on the drawing board.  Maybe modern technology will do the job eventually.  What about different designs?  A while ago I had an e-mail from a mate with a series of photos of an alleged Boeing prototype making flights over the Californian coast that were brilliant - a massive flying wing, with the passenger cabin part of it, glass floors, really luxurious interiors even in Economy, capable of carrying a thousand passengers at near supersonic speeds.  It was beautiful.  It was also a fake, created by some bright spark that had gone viral. But I really hope something like it is developed soon!

Finally, the BBC has an excellent section (called Future) on its website that looks at possible developments in our world, covering everything from plane design, to electric cars, to medical sciences, to space travel.  I thoroughly recommend it.  The other day it ran a feature on a design of a plane that is electric powered, will remain airborne virtually non-stop, and is basically a flying wing the comes down and picks up moving train carriages, lifting them from special tracks that also give it a charge boost as they do so, then lands them on similar tracks at their destination.  Designed by a team at Glasgow University, no less......  Still a concept, on the drawing board only, but technically feasible apparently.  Now, that really would be something to see.....

The problem with all this, of course, is cost.

Planes don't come cheap, never mind airports.  The planning alone these days seems to take years, then there is development time, and once proven, construction and customer roll-out.  The A380 was a couple of years late entering service, and the Dreamliner has fared even worse (and here the delays are getting worse still as Boeing struggles to come to grips with these technical glitches - like the one that caused the fires, courtesy of a new type of battery - as a result of all this cutting edge technology).  And the costs here are measured in billions of dollars - as are the losses suffered because of these problems.  Not an easy industry, plane making.

Airports?  Even worse.  As I wrote earlier, the arguments and discussions, public enquiries and protests, over expanding Heathrow and Gatwick alone have been going on most of my life, and are still going on. Both airports are glorified building sites, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps this is understandable for Heathrow, built as it is in suburban London where space is at a premium and thousands of people are directly affected by it (and in many instances supported by it).  But Gatwick is 50-odd miles south of London, in the Sussex countryside, and hence has a different set of problems - mainly that any development there is likely to adversely affect that countryside.  Now I do enjoy a ramble in the green fields of England myself, and I do appreciate its beauty as much as anyone else, but I also believe wholeheartedly that it is just wrong to stop progress purely for ascetic reasons.  Development is necessary and needs to be done as soon as possible, the government should have the courage to get on with it.  But I'm not holding my breath for that to happen!

Governments everywhere object to spending money on anything that is likely to be controversial or take a long time to accrue any benefits.  The quick fix mentality is prevalent, because governments tend to change frequently and so its members tend to put their own jobs and reputations first, above the longer term needs of their countries.  They don't say this, of course - every prime minister in my memory has talked of how this decision or that law is designed to improve the lot of the citizenry for generations to come, but relatively few of them have had the courage to follow through on these words without huge compromises.  No-one these days wants to end up with the reputation of, say, Maggie Thatcher - a conviction politician who amongst other things pushed through trade union reforms and sparked confrontations that arguably destroyed the British steel and mining industries (and some would argue manufacturing generally) for reasons that she believed were correct even if no-one else did.   She's only the politician I can remember whose death was celebrated by street parties even as her coffin was laid to rest.

So although the long view is the one that governments, not only in the UK but elsewhere, should be taking in terms of airport development and all that goes with it, the exact opposite short term-ism remains prevalent.

Where does this leave the traveling public, then?  Clearly, low cost airlines are here to stay, and they are springing up all over the world to satisfy the demand to get from A to B as quickly and cheaply as possible, and the major airlines like BA and so on cut their prices (and reduce their on-board service provision to offset that) in order to compete.  For the majority of passengers this is of course a Good Thing - with the caveat that they must remember you get what you pay for.  Want a cheap ticket, no grub or drink, and perhaps end up at an airport miles from the place you want to visit, then RyanAir is clearly the airline of choice.  Want a cheap ticket with a short public transport link to your final destination, and happy to take a packed lunch?  Plenty of options - EasyJet, WizzAir, Air Berlin, Go! and many others, in all regions of the world nowadays.  And the choices will grow as the market grows, as it seems certain to do.

If you want a higher service level, with in-flight entertainment that is more than a dog-eared magazine in the seat pocket and free food and drink, then you will have to pay a correspondingly high price for it.  This follows, too, if you want to cut down on the optional extras.  Check-in is a classic example.  All the budget boys, and some national carriers too, are charging for checking bags into the hold - and some of the fees are extortionate.  The justification is that, to check in a bag takes intervention from a salaried member of staff, the use of a desk with all its computer terminals, conveyor belts, electricity to run it all, and sticky labels to put on your bag and (of course) costly boarding card.  OK - I'll buy that: I can see that little lot costs money, though I wouldn't have thought it was eighty quid a time.  But if I'm travelling with hand baggage only, a laptop say, or even no baggage at all (as was the case on my day trip to London the other week), and, further, check in at home on-line (so using my own computer and electricity and desk) and print my own boarding card in PDF format - again, on my own printer for which I bought the ink cartridges and paper - WHY am I charged a fee as an added extra to my ticket price for using web check in?  What cost has the airline actually incurred here?  It's not just WizzAir who do this: as far as I can see all the low cost carriers do the same thing, and much more besides (like charging say £20 for using a credit card that is not endorsed by the airline).  I can see absolutely no justification for that kind of thing, and have never read or heard an explanation from any of the airlines that wasn't absolute condescending bullshit.

Whichever way you want to travel, however, you will undoubtedly face overcrowded terminals, slow security screening, inefficient boarding procedures and regular delays.  Partly this is down to the capacity problems I've already written about - an airport built and equipped to process 10,000 passengers a day will always struggle when the demand is three or four times that number.  Partly this is also down to an out-dated air traffic control system (at least in Europe) where flights are passed through multiple centres as they cross different countries on their journeys.  It could all be centralised, with today's increased computer power and satellite communications, and indeed this is something the EU Commission (for once doing the right thing) has been trying to push through in the past couple of years.  Unfortunately, this path would inevitably mean job cuts, as national centres are closed as unnecessary, and of course the controllers' trade unions (and some governments) have consistently refused to consider it - there have been a number of strikes and protests that have so far delayed things.  That position will not change all the time there is a global financial crisis - so for a while yet then.

Security delays will continue to be the bane of all our travelling lives for the foreseeable future.  For me the most frustrating part of that is its inconsistency.  When I last flew to London, outbound from Warsaw I took off my jacket, made sure my watch and even cufflinks were in its pocket with my mobile phone, and took off my belt.  I kept my wedding ring on, and my medallion chain, but that was it - both were visible, and in any case they rarely set off the alarm.  Sure enough, I breezed through without a problem - no beep.  Fast forward 14 hours to Luton and my return.  Same process.  Went through the barrier, closely followed by another guy who was clearly in a rush and came through pretty much on my heels.  The machine beeped - for him: I had already passed the elderly Sikh security guy.  Another guy, standing behind him, pulled me aside for a search.  I pointed out that I had cleared ok, and the alarm was for the guy behind me (who by this time had grabbed his stuff and was heading at a rate of knots for the Duty Free.  The Security bloke was unmoved - I had to take off my shoes (rubber soled) and go through the machine again - no beep this time either.  But they still insisted on the search (probably as pay back for my having the ordacity to query why they had selected me).....arms akimbo, passengers tutting and/or laughing as this old Sikh basically felt me up (yes, he took an inordinately long time checking my inside leg - I actually told him, quite loudly, that if he touched my crotch once more I'd break his jaw, which prompted his mate to move closer as support).

Now I accept both of the guys were only doing their job, with the idea of protecting every passenger - and I have no problem with that.  I can even (almost....) accept the Sikh was doing nothing more than taking particular professional care in his frisking.  But I can't understand how I, a bald, sixty year old man in a business suit who has complied with all the security screening instructions and twice cleared the machine without a problem, could reasonably be pulled out of line as, presumably, a "potential security threat" and submitted to the indignity of a pat-down in this way, while the guy following me, who had clearly set off the alarm, was allowed to hustle through unmolested.  I'm making the journey again this week, so I'll be interested to see if there's a repetition.

So there you go, some thoughts about what we have to look forward to in our flying lives.  Probably.  Part 2 will follow maybe later this week or certainly next, and look at road and rail travel.  Hope you enjoy.

And it would be interesting to see what you think - feel free to use the Comments section and let me know your thoughts.

Happy travelling.