Why Air Travel Still Sucks

What if I told you we haven’t seen a genuine innovation to commercial flight in over 60 years? The Boeing 707 of the 1950s, often revered as the hallmark of commercial aeronautics, was just as fast as today’s planes. Sure, now you have six more inches of legroom and your peanuts are honey-roasted instead of salted, but the sad truth is that staid politics and the economy of flight have made it nearly impossible to traverse our skies any faster. The tech is there, but there’s a lot of problems getting in the way.

Air travel was once the giddy fancy of the world – we admired it as a fashionable, enviable experience to behold for yourself, and it’s since devolved into a stagnated industry ignorant of change. Not to mention a slew of tawdry airline incidents being brought to the public attention over the last few months. I’m looking at you, United. But today, I want to reveal why air travel still sucks, our fleeting attempt to revolutionize it, and where we can go from here.

Commercial flight is something we’ve all come to take for granted, regardless of whether you’ve been on a plane or not. It’s incredibly safe, reasonably cost-effective, and much faster than any alternative form of travel. It has single-handedly revolutionized transportation, logistics, warfare, and economics. It’s continued to rule our lives, but the depressing part is that it hasn’t gotten better, at least not in a way we embraced.

In the early 1970s, the British and French got together and slapped a turbojet on a lean, fighter-jet-looking airliner and called it Concorde. With a top speed of 1,300 mph, the Concorde operated at Mach 2 and could cruise across the Atlantic in under four hours. It was the sexiest addition to commercial flight, and we had it totally under control. 27 years of operation, dozens of records broken, and a design that drew any headline possible. All of this seems spectacular, so why doesn’t every airline run a fleet of sky-streaking Concordes?

Surprise, surprise, the Concorde was prohibitively expensive and loud. Tickets prices were near robbery, and the airliner burned more fuel on its way from the terminal to the runway than an A320 did on a flight to Paris. Also, the sonic boom that it created was so deafening that several governments banned the Concorde from flying across overland routes. Couple this with limited capacity, even less demand, and egregious servicing costs, and we see how such a miracle technology was dealt the boot after only 2 decades of operation.

What was once a complete revolution to air travel wilted into nothing more than a fancy exhibit at museums across the world. Some may say that no one really needs a supersonic aircraft – if the shoe fits, wear it. But truthfully, that isn’t the point. An ideal infrastructure for any nation is one where the best technology pervades an industry and forces everyone to tag along, but that is almost never the case. The fundamental laws of economics forbid it, and the often stringent dependencies formed by politics, competition, and commerce make it even more of a prohibitive desire. While incredibly hard to do, it isn’t impossible. Take a look at the iPhone – they brought the best possible technology to market and engendered a decade of catch up by previous titans in the industry.

On that note, companies exist who are once again trying to revolutionize commercial air travel. Companies like Boom promise to bring the once awe-inspiring technology back into the limelight, and it seems relatively promising, with airliners having requested 76 of their XB-1 Supersonic model. They champion faster, safer, and quieter supersonic flight, and while incredibly inspiring, the reality is that they haven’t released much other than computer generated renditions in a video.

That’s not to say, however, that progress isn’t being made. Enterprises have begun to consider flipping the aeronautics industry on its head, and it’s only a matter of time until commercial flight becomes a direct beneficiary.