What is the future of flying?

Sensemaking / What is the future of flying?

Peter Madden explores changing patterns in air travel and what this may cost the environment.

04 Oct 2011

Peter Madden explores changing patterns in air travel and what this may cost the environment.

In a couple of decades’ time, despite climate change, there is likely to be more flying than there is now. On current trends, while the global economy is predicted to grow by 3.3% between 2010 and 2030, the number of aviation passengers looks set to grow by 4.2%. What will change, however, is who flies – and how.

New patterns of trade and migration between the powerful nations of China, India and Brazil will create many more routes and generate hundreds of millions of new outbound tourists. As these countries develop stronger business ties, they will see face-to-face contact as crucial.

The combination of rising oil prices and carbon costs means that the conversion to low-carbon transport is no longer an environmental issue: it’s an economic imperative. And there are likely to be multiple responses to these pressures.

Airline margins will be tighter than ever, and we may well see mass industry consolidation. European and North American operators could be subsumed in mega-alliances controlled by the major Chinese and Indian airlines.

Flying will have to become much more efficient. Advances in technology – including algae and jatropha biofuels – will be crucial. Gains will also be made by new navigation systems designed to eliminate inefficiencies in air traffic control.

Of course, some people will avoid flying altogether. Telepresence services offer an attractive alternative to businesses keen to cut travel costs. Users will sit in front of a crystal-clear screen and converse with a three-dimensional image of a colleague, as if in the same room.

China will follow the earlier example set by Europe, replacing pretty much all internal flights with high-speed train journeys. We may also see the return of older technologies such as airships for some journeys [see ‘Heirs to the air?’].

But in many cities in the newly developed world, personal flying could take off. Personal helicopters and helipads already dot the skyline in places like São Paulo and Mumbai.

The seeds of these changes are already here. Outbound Chinese tourism is booming – increasing by a fifth in 2010. Big investments in biofuels are being made, with Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand already doing test flights. Meanwhile, companies such as HP are limiting flying and replacing it with video conferencing.

But whatever the efficiency gains, flying will continue to place enormous pressures on the environment. Things will only turnaround if humankind passes a cultural tipping point where we don’t want to travel so far afield, where visiting the exotic is no longer seen as desirable.

Peter Madden is Chief Executive, Forum for the Future.

Photo: archives/istock

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