Does it sound like the battle cry of the keynote speaker at a Trekkies convention? Possibly, but as far-fetched as these ideas may seem, they’re some of the key innovations that are either already transforming or will soon transform the way we travel for business, for pleasure, and in some cases, for the sake of being able to say you did it.
“There’s never been a more exciting time to travel,” says trend forecaster and author Michael McQueen (michaelmcqueen.net). “Obviously there are some ‘big ticket’ topics such as space tourism taking up most of the airtime, but for the most part, what we’ll be seeing is how tech will increasingly be integrated into the travel experience, making for more pleasant, streamlined journeys.”
So, what are some of the key changes we can expect between getting from point A to point B? Consider the following a mere taste of what’s to come…
In space, no one can hear you scream (with delight)
Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson can pinpoint the exact moment the wonder of space travel – and perhaps one day, space tourism – captured his imagination. “I have been dreaming of space travel since I watched the moon landings from a tiny black-and-white television screen in 1969 and looked up to the skies in wonder,” he wrote recently for CNN. “I was in awe of the courage it must have taken – to turn something seemingly impossible into reality. This fascination with flying, breaking boundaries, and exploring the great unknown has never left me.”
Fifty years later, his dream of sending everyday people – or ‘founder astronauts’ into space is about to become a reality. Branson’s spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic (virgingalactic.com) has just announced they’re ready to move their fleet of spacecraft to New Mexico’s Spaceport America, billed as the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, to begin the final phase of testing before humans launch into the big black.
Branson is far from the only business magnate with interest in kickstarting space tourism (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos launched Blue Origin in 2000, and habitual business magnate Elon Musk launched SpaceX in 2002 - two key players among many).
Initially, Branson had predicted Virgin Galactic - founded in 2004 - would be flying ‘ordinary people’ (albeit ones with incredibly deep pockets; the price tag being thrown around initially was $US200,000 per ticket) into space by 2007. He told a press gathering at the Royal Aeronautical Society in central London back in 2004, “We hope to create thousands of astronauts over the next few years and bring alive their dream of seeing the majestic beauty of our planet from above, the stars in all their glory and the amazing sensation of weightlessness,” he said. “The development will also allow every country in the world to have its own astronauts rather than the privileged few.”
Delays followed. There was a 2007 fatal explosion which killed three staff members during a ground test in the Mojave Air and Space Port, and a tragic test-flight crash in October 2014 which not only resulted in the loss of one of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spacecraft but killed one pilot as well as seriously injured another.
However, with the Virgin Galactic team having moved their winged passenger rocket and more than 100 employees from California to Spaceport America where other tenants working on the space tourism dream include SpaceX, UP Aerospace, EXOS Aerospace, and EnergeticX Pipeline25space, his dream of bringing space tourism to the people is a step closer to reality.
“This year is the year, the 50th year of the moon landing,” Branson told Australian ABC current affairs program 7.30. “So it is going to be extraordinarily exciting to see people going into space. I hope to be able to go up in July. I’ve been looking forward to it for 14 years. And by the end of the year, we should be taking members of the public into space.”
So how will it work? The reality of the voyages is likely quite different to anything currently being overworked in your imagination. Virgin Galactic operates the reusable SpaceShipTwo spaceflight system which consists of WhiteKnightTwo, a custom-built carrier aircraft, and SpaceShipTwo, a passenger-carrying spaceship. Those holding lucky tickets will undergo three days of training and preparation at Spaceport America before a maximum of eight private astronauts (including two pilots) custom-fitted flight suits. There, they enjoy a conventional runway take-off before the vehicles climb to an altitude of 50,000 feet and then release the spaceship from the aircraft which then enters a gentle glide.
Nervous during turbulence? What happens next isn’t for the faint-hearted, with the rocket motor firing up, the spaceship’s nose pitches to a near-vertical climb and forces of acceleration propelling the spaceship to speeds approaching three and a half times the speed of sound towards space.
Eventually, the rocket motor will be turned off, allowing passengers to leave their seats for several minutes of weightlessness and Insta-worthy views of Earth and the blackness of space (the aircraft’s windows are configured to allow maximum viewing). Then it’s a matter of returning to your seat before the spaceship ‘dynamically glides’ back to Spaceport America for a runway landing.
With only a few test-runs to go before the first passengers go up, it’s clear that the billionaires are on board, but what of the everyday Joes they’re hoping will ‘democratise space’?
Matthew D. Upchurch, is not only one of the first passengers holding a ticket (from a list which now stands at 600 waitlisted passengers with tickets now at the AUD361,0000 / £197,000 mark), but his company, Virtuoso, is authorised to sell Virgin Galactic tickets to the public, making them what could best be called, ‘Accredited Space Agents’*.
Naturally, he insists space tourism is a natural progression for travellers who are always seeking the ‘next big thing.’
“I was never a space fanatic or thrill-seeker. I love travel because it takes you out of your comfort zone, opens your mind and helps you grow as a person,” he explains. “Seeing things from a new perspective is my motivation, and everyone who’s been to space says it’s life-changing. That’s how I feel about all travel, but this is the ultimate.”
On a personal level, Upchurch says he is ready, having already completed spaceflight training at The National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center outside of Philadelphia where a simulator ‘lets you experience the G-Forces you can expect to feel during lift-off and on re-entry.’ From a professional perspective, he can see that while he might be one of the first 84 passengers to take the flight (Branson and his family will take the inaugural flight after which it will be a lottery), there are plenty of other curious travellers out there ready to claim their place in history. “Ticketholders run the gamut,” he says. “They range from adventurers looking for the next big thing to science teachers who’ve had a lifelong dream to travel into space. Ages vary widely, and economic backgrounds do as well. There isn’t a ‘typical’ passenger, but the one commonality is that they are passionate about having this experience.”
With all eyes pointed to the skies, what does the future of space tourism look like?
Upchurch says Virgin Galactic is all about making suborbital space travel more egalitarian rather than something reserved only for the super-wealthy. “Once it launches and flights begin operating on a consistent schedule, efficiencies will naturally occur, driving down costs and ticket prices,” he explains. “The longer-term view is looking at how these flights potentially impact the future of air travel overall. Based on this technology, could you create new ways of travelling around the world that significantly reduce flight times? If you’re looking at this solely as a means of ferrying people to the edge of space, then you’re missing the bigger picture of what’s at stake and the possibility it creates.”McQueen, agreeing with Upchurch, says “It will change life as we know it for Australians in particular. The one thing that stops a lot of corporations from operating in Australia currently is how far away we are from everyone else,” he explains. “If we suddenly have a two-hour commute from London, companies will want to operate here, people will want to live here, and domestic real estate will be huge.”
FLIGHTS OF FANCY
For those itching to get to Mykonos as opposed to Mars, the future of plane travel is all about personalisation.
Obviously, there are also significant changes afoot with the rise (and rise) of the premium economy category, the introduction of ‘zero waste’ flights and non-conventional seat configurations such as Qatar Airways Qsuite, with their four pod seating arrangements. However, the battle to boost tech and improve connectivity is the most significant change we’ll see moving forward while up in the sky.
A 2018 Wi-Fi Report by Routehappy showed 82 airlines – both premium carriers and budget – now offer inflight connectivity which is a 17 percent increase on 2017 and the race is on as to who can provide their passengers with the best inflight experience.
Travel booking platform Traveloka (traveloka.com) looked at onboard Wi-Fi, power connections and whether passengers can send text messages, make phone calls and/or watch live television and ranked the most tech-friendly airlines in the world.
Qatar Airways claimed top spot for launching ‘Super Wi-Fi’ which boasts speeds of up to 50mps, while Emirates came in second place for its inflight entertainment which includes 3,500 channels of movies, TV shows, music, games and live TV, as well as offering passengers 20MB of free Wi-Fi for the first two hours.
Our quest for improved onboard connectivity invites new opportunities for partnerships with online streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon – a certainty that’s just around the corner, but for those who can’t handle watching a movie marathon between continents, the focus on using virtual reality on aircraft is just as exciting and varied.
Case in point? Turkish airline SunExpress now offers passengers a 360-degree private entertainment experience with content varying from Hollywood blockbusters to destination clips and meditative relaxation videos – a follow up to earlier initiatives which have included giving its customers the option of booking flights by voice command via Amazon Alexa and collaborating with food delivery start-up Foodora to serve up some unique onboard menus on select routes.
Many airlines are now following suit in the air (Alaskan Airlines launched a trial of the SkyLights’ Allosky VR headset last year. The entertainment solution, which screens 2-D, 3-D, and forward-facing 360-degree films on a Full HD cinema screen), but they’re also making a splash on the ground. In 2017, Lufthansa successfully used VR glasses in selling upgrades for flights during check-in when passengers were unsure if the additional cost would be worth it.
Native English speakers may rarely experience problems on large commercial carriers. However, non-english speakers could experience some extra help with airlines such as Air New Zealand road-testing Google’s wireless Pixel Buds headphones which will enable the live translation of 40 languages. “It’s a game-changer – not only on airlines but across the travel industry,” confirms McQueen. “It’s a little earpiece that allows you to ask for something in English which will then get translated into Mandarin or whichever language you need, then that person will respond in their native tongue, and their response will get translated back to English for you allowing you to communicate freely no matter where you are.”
A port in a (technical) storm
Radical changes are also sweeping our airports so that passengers can seek assistance from robots, have home-cooked meals delivered to their boarding gates or they can stand around shouting ‘Update my flight details’ into the skies only to find the information magically appears at hand.
One of the most significant changes in the airport landscape is the use of biometrics in passenger identification and processing – a term that has become less of a buzzword and more of a reality in recent months with a slew of initiatives coming to fruition across the globe.
Earlier this year, British Airways added more facial detectors in front of the boarding gates at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, following successful tests there and at Heathrow and LAX in Los Angeles. The airline claims they were able to board ‘more than 400 customers in only 22 minutes’ – less than half the time it usually takes to process passengers the traditional way.
It makes sense of course; rather than presenting their passport and boarding pass at the departure gate, all they need to do is look into a camera before boarding, wait for their biometric data to be verified, and it’s onto the aircraft they go.
Biometrics isn’t only used at the boarding gate; airports across the globe are rolling it out across various sectors with some airlines such as Delta integrating facial recognition into a few bag drop stations. Airports such as Dubai International Airport are gearing up to launch what they call a ‘biometric path’ and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is launching a trial of biometric technology at every stage of the passenger journey.
To see where the rest of the world is headed in terms of biometrics, we only need to look towards China, says McQueen. “If we look at the major airports in Beijing and Shanghai, we’re at a point now where it’s known where you are at all times, what you’re doing, what you’re buying and where you’re likely to go next,” he says. “It means you can have your face scanned in order to pay for purchases – you’ll no longer need cash, a card or a smartphone – and airports will increasingly be designed around passengers’ needs, but on the flipside you can also say goodbye to privacy and this will eventually be worldwide.”
What then of robots? Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been steadily making its mark in all facets of tourism over the last couple of years, and according to the 2018 Air Transport IT Insights survey, nearly half of the world’s airlines and 32 % of its airports are “seeking a partner to further investigate robotics and automated vehicles in the next three years.” We’re already well on our way; at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, robots equipped with cameras roam the floors acting as an extra set of eyes to supplement existing security, at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, ‘AIRSTAR”, a second-generation robot assists passengers, helping to escort late or lost travellers to their departure gates and at Rotterdam The Hague Airport, baggage bots are currently being trialled.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of course. French firm Stanley Robotics recently started its first full-time self-driving robot valet service at France’s Lyon-Saint-Exupery airport. The company explaining that robots use space much more efficiently, fitting 50 percent more cars into the same area thanks to precision driving and because the system keeps track of when the customers will return so they can park the vehicles back-to-back and then pull out the car just in time for its owner’s return. Also in the pipeline is the potential roll out by KLM of Care-E, a robot that does everything from greeting you by scanning your boarding pass to carrying your luggage.
AI isn’t just about robots; however; several airlines and airports have already launched AI-powered products, such as chatbots and virtual assistance. Voice technology or voice recognition technology is leading the charge with passengers at Heathrow Airport now able to ask Alexa for live flight status information, gate updates and details on arrivals and departures. United Airlines’ customers can now use Google Assistant to start the check-in process by merely saying ‘Hey Google, check into my flight’, and Virgin Australia now allows customers to launch voice check-in through Amazon Alexa. “Using technology to streamline the customer journey is a huge priority for us, and we look forward to announcing some new initiatives in this space in the near future,” Virgin Australia chief information officer, Cameron Stone said.
Those requiring extra assistance aren’t overlooked; Heathrow, JFK, Seattle-Tacoma and most recently, Sydney, are among those who’ve aligned with technology company Aira (aira.io), which works to provide a more accessible passenger experience to travellers who are blind or have low vision through smart glasses and an app. Similarly, Edinburgh Airport has released an app developed by Neatebox (neatebox.com) which allows passengers with disabilities to personalise the assistance they require by setting up a profile – complete with the nature of their requests – before they travel.
So what then can we make of reports such as the one published by UK-based inventory management company, Vero Solutions which claims robots are expected to have taken over the check-in process by 2030? Upchurch says while the push towards tech is aggressive, it’s still no match for genuine human connection. “Efficiency has its benefits but technology has to be tempered by the human element so it doesn’t become cold and sterile,” he says.
The future has also started to impact the airport dining experience. As travellers seek much more than a burger on the road, airports are delivering with airport hospitality group OTG (otgexp.com) one of the first to reshape what they call ‘the airport experience’, putting in iPads at 80% of gate seats across terminals in airports such as New York, Toronto and Chicago and allowing passengers to order from nearby dining and bar options. The team worked with locally renowned chefs to add Japanese and Indian restaurants in two terminals in Toronto (for example), while a local sommelier picked wines from the region for the airport’s two wine bars. It’s the way of the future, says OTG CEO Rick Blatstein. “We don’t cookie-cutter anything out. Our restaurants are unique to each city.”
Don’t have time to eat in? Soon it will be common to have a food delivery service come right up to your gate and present you with your heavenly brown paper bag of goodies. Dubai International Airport became the first airport to partner with Deliveroo, to develop a new concept, DeliverooDXB, enabling passengers to get freshly prepared food delivered straight to their boarding gates within minutes of order.
Ride with me
What of the flying share-rides many of us are dreaming of for the future? Transcend Air’s mission to launch a new class of city to city mobility with minimal environmental impact has moved up a notch. They are building and testing electrified vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. They are focusing on ultra-short-haul flights between major markets with its four- and five-passenger VTOL planes to be flying commercially, starting in the US by 2024.
The company has teamed up with Lily Helipads to build ‘vertipads’ - sustainable, zero-emission, barge-based landing spots located on the water right by city centres.
It will address multiple problems involving congestion, traffic and pollution caused by our current transportation system, said Transcend Air Founder and CEO, Gregory Bruell. “By bringing vertipads close to travellers, we don’t increase airport traffic. And, by focusing on a safe and environmentally friendly landing and take-off infrastructure, as only Lily can help us provide, we will be creating a more sustainable way
You can’t deny these are exciting times, but it’s important not to get too ahead of ourselves, warns McQueen. “There’s no denying these changes are going to happen, but let’s be humble in our approach. We shouldn’t overestimate how clever we are because if there’s anything humans have above artificial intelligence, it’s the knowledge that that kind of arrogance can ultimately be dangerous.”