The Next Frontier for Innovation: Air Travel

It’s not just your imagination. Airline seats are shrinking, flight delays are pervasive, and airports are more crowded than ever. Global travel is on the rise, and shows no signs of slowing.

As the global population of traveling age increases, and declining income inequality gives rise to a global Middle Class — disproportionately so from maturing markets like Asia-Pacific and Latin America — the demand for travel continues to grow.

The travel ecosystem as we know it today is built on a century of technological and infrastructure development. Even so, it is unprepared for the challenges this growth will bring. As airports run out of space for new terminals and gates, how many people can airlines fit into the same number of aircraft? How can airports better manage their throughput and improve turnaround? What measures can the airlines take to mitigate the compounding effects of delays? And most importantly, how do travel suppliers solve these challenges without compromising safety or the traveler experience?

In the Air

Better Flight & Crew Scheduling.

It’s hard to quantify the effect of flight delays, not only on the airlines’ bottom line but also on lost traveler wages, goodwill, and productivity. The FAA tried though, and estimated a loss of $26.6 billion in 2017 alone. More travelers will only compound these consequences. Better software for optimizing flight/crew scheduling, taking into account historical patterns of delays, will enable airlines and airports to reduce the likelihood of disruptions. See Lumo.

New Inflight Entertainment.

For travelers that get tired of sudoku and watching movies on tiny screens, VR offers exciting new forms of entertainment that can tune out what may be an excruciatingly long (and if children are involved, loud) flight. As headsets get cheaper and resolution improves, travelers may soon be playing games and watching movies on simulated 2D screens far larger than what they have at home. Though safety concerns have been raised over emergency situations, startups are working with airlines to find a solution. See Inflight VR.

AI-Enabled Predictive Maintenance.

Traditional routine-based preventative maintenance has been standard procedure for airlines for many years. Soon, this will be replaced with a new standard: predictive maintenance, which continually uses acoustics, infrared imaging, vibration analysis, and other monitoring methods to identify the safest, most cost-efficient time to perform maintenance. Tracking the actual, rather than expected, condition of an aircraft at any given time means safer flights and less time spent on the ground for regular inspection. See Predikto.

Faster Aircraft.

The best way to reduce delays, improve the traveler experience, and get more flights out of a given route is simply to make a plane that gets passengers from A to B faster. Though the cost involved in developing new and better aircraft often precludes smaller companies from attempting such a massive undertaking, a few startups have dared to try, and many air carriers have already shown interest. In the coming years, we may yet see the return of supersonic flight. See Boom.

On the Ground

Seamless Security.

Invasive searches and long queues have been the nightmare of travelers for years, only exacerbated by today’s political climate. Still, the TSA and others have made efforts to balance efficacy with efficiency. Threat detection AI, mechanical smell sensors, and new imaging techniques (and yes, facial recognition) enable better security measures that most travelers will never even notice. See Evolv Technology.

Autonomous Vehicles.

Most large airports have thousands of vehicles on the tarmac, transporting people, luggage, and equipment from one terminal to another. Each active vehicle needs a driver, and even a small personnel disruption can cascade into a major flight delay. Introducing autonomous vehicle fleets can make getting around an airport much faster & easier for both travelers and flight crews, while improving turnaround and replacing the slow, aging tramways in many airports. See EasyMile.

Machine Vision.

Though it may not seem that way to an impatient traveler, what goes on between a plane’s landing and its next take-off — its turnaround — very much resembles a pit stop. Parking space at the gate is expensive, and between refueling, loading/unloading passengers & luggage, cleaning, and more, crews have a lot of work to do in a short time frame. Machine vision technology used to identify bottlenecks in manufacturing can also be used to speed up turnaround, thereby reducing delays. See Atollogy.

What Does This Mean for Us?

With all the excitement that travel brings, most of us have gotten used to the occasional stress that comes with it. There is no cure for long queues, and airline seats aren’t likely to get any bigger anytime soon. But if the innovators have their way, we can look forward to a better traveler experience overall, from the security line to the terminal to the skies, and fewer excruciating delays & lost bags.

Travel innovation hasn’t gotten much attention, and for good reason: the average person may only interact with new travel technologies a few times per year, if at all, and even a B2B(2C) solution may require a lengthy RFP (request for proposal) process and oversight by regulators. Not especially attractive to investors or interesting to the public.

Still, just as cities are considering smart city initiatives and new autonomous mobility solutions to improve livability & reduce congestion, airlines and airports have a lot to gain from working with startups to turn the challenges of growing global travel into opportunities. Hopefully we as travelers will experience the results soon.

Marcello Miranda is a tech junkie, and frequently writes on startups. Follow him on Medium and Twitter, and if you enjoyed this content, give a few claps to help spread the word!