A World Without Jet Travel?
THE FUTURIAN #2
Humans have been traveling in commercial jet airliners for over half a century. By common business and social norms, it’s been developed into a necessity for success. Whether success is defined as a business engagement or simply discovering another culture or place while on holiday. With the doctrine of “we have to be there or it doesn’t count” ingrained in us for so long, coupled with the industry that has grown to support commercial aviation, it would take a once-in-a-generation event to change the way we think about how we engage with other people. We’d need a massive fundamental change in our motivation to overcome so much inertia even with such an event.
The future of the commercial jet airline industry is on life support. That’s been true since deregulation in the 1970s. While there have been occasional profitable years, no airline has strung together a long-term success strategy due to the unwillingness of airlines to raise prices or even keep up with inflation when the fundamental technology has not radically changed. One of the key drivers is because it’s prestigious to be an airline founder or executive. Aircraft manufacturers know this and are more than happy to help a new or expanding airline with affordable financing. Also, most nations provide additional help through a version of import/export banking and outright financial backstopping. The motivation is primarily due to the viewpoint that there’s something inherently important in having a robust national airline presence.
While the internet was launched as a U.S. government initiative, it spun off to the university and private sectors a decade after its launch. Since then, it has grown at a rate in line with Moore’s law. To put the global future of both technologies into perspective, the market value of the top 10 public global airlines is only US$176 billion. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has a higher net worth. Since the top 10 wealthiest people are all founders of internet-related businesses, it makes sense to look at the businesses’ valuation that helped them prosper. When we do, we find that the entire jet airline business has become a rounding error on the financial statement of just one internet-based company.
Yet, many of us take the viewpoint that “being there” still matters. But what is it about being there that genuinely matters to us? Even before our inception as humans, we’ve always communicated with a complicated menagerie of expressions with the associated reception being through our senses. Being there and our actions taken while being there translate into our emotional response to another person, which builds our personal relationships. Our individual and societal foundations are based on trust and communication with other humans. Face-to-face is the norm that we’ve developed over tens of thousands of years. Changing that inertia is an even more considerable challenge than overcoming the inertia of commercial jet travel.
It’s even more challenging when we recognize that any technological solution comes with an initial associated cost that far exceeds the means of people living outside of the European and North American prosperity bubbles. There have been various government, foundation, and private sector initiatives to bring everyone, regardless of location and means, the technology to connect to the internet. Still, success has been fleeting due to a lack of long-term commitment.
There is a proven method to overcoming most human nature-related obstacles: convenience coupled with lower prices. We’ve witnessed this in the music and movie industries: convenience initially overcoming fidelity. For most of the hold-outs, fidelity caught up to the point that the difference no longer was an issue. Our world is moving toward affordable internet connections and the associated tools. Can convenience and lower prices alone conquer social inertia?
Before COVID, this was a pipedream. After being forced to adopt a virtual presence in the business and personal worlds for over a year, estimates range from between 10% to 20% of business people who want to continue to move forward with a purely virtual presence. While no technology can currently recreate the entire in-person experience, the cat-is-out-of-the-bag for the world’s inventors. The gaming world is leading the way toward a sophisticated virtual presence. Technology will need to engage all of our senses because we have not yet outgrown that necessity. In the not-distant future, connect a device with a full suite of sensor inputs to the right places in or around your brain, and being there will have a new meaning.
This advancement will require most of us, as individuals, to fundamentally rethink what we believe truly matters in our relationships. But when technology becomes sufficient to the point that the combination of convenience, low-cost, and acceptable fidelity meet our basic requirements, virtual alternatives will trump social inertia and make commercial jet travel redundant.
© Tom Libertiny 2021