Celebrating 100 years of commercial aviation
By The Montreal Gazette
Nov. 3, 2014, Montreal - Man’s first powered flight, the Wright brothers’ wobbly jaunt at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in December 1903, flew a shorter distance than the wingspan of a Boeing 747 — 120 feet in 12 seconds. But of such piddly hops are great enterprises born.
By The Montreal Gazette
And commercial aviation, which celebrates its centenary this year, is one such enterprise.
Its birth can actually be pinpointed. It began a decade later, on New Year’s Day 1914, when Abram C. Pheil, the mayor of Tampa Bay, paid $400 in an auction to cross the Florida bay to St. Petersburg in a Benoist Flying Boat (see sidebar), becoming the world’s first paying passenger on a flying machine.
Over its century, aviation has reached heights that would have been inconceivable to Pheil — or anyone else back then. Airplanes — aeroplanes, as they were then called — have evolved from rickety, often deadly, wooden contraptions into titanium-aluminum behemoths that navigate the globe in hours and in great safety — one unfortunate vanishing Malaysian Airlines jumbo jet notwithstanding.
Certainly, aviation’s reputation has been battered. The nerves start to tighten up long before you schlep to the airport in anticipation of the hurry-up-and-wait line shuffles and various indignities. But considering the well-nigh-endless list of uncontrollable, unforeseeable external factors, plagues and pestilence the airline industry is instantly vulnerable to — Ebola is the current scourge, but you can add SARS, H1N1, volcanic eruptions, would-be shoe bombers, terrorists, hijackers, fuel spikes, wars, recessions, etc. — some longer-term perspective is in order.
The rewards we take for granted are pretty cool. Flying at nearly the speed of sound over forbidding oceans, deserts and mountain ranges, landing at the other end of the world hours later and getting on with life — a beach in Tortola, a conference in Paris, a business meeting in Brasilia, a family reunion in Cape Town, a ski trip to Chile, a desert trek in Qatar.
So what can we expect this world of aviation to look like over the next century?
There’s no sense in speculating about what it will be like in 2114. Few things look sillier now than the “car of the future in 2000″ as imagined in 1960; we were all supposed to be flying our cars by now.
A more useful question might be what direction is aviation taking? What are its goals and objectives over the next few decades?
The short answer is, disappointingly, increments. Apologies to imaginative futurologists, but there is no Big Bang coming, no Jetsons personal aircraft blackening the skies, no transformative technology that will instantly and totally upend the world of airplanes, airports and air travel.
Wi-Fi is fast becoming standard in aircraft — but who could possibly predict what technology will exist 100 years from now — or 10, for that matter.
Bob Cummings, executive vice-president of sales, marketing and guest experience for WestJet Airlines Ltd, said in an email that “it will be interesting to watch the rollout of space tourism. Companies like Excor Aerospace or Virgin Galactic are on the cusp of this type of travel and it is credible to consider the cost of this type of air travel to fall in the future.”
“Beyond that, the airline industry simply changes too quickly to suggest we would understand where we would be in 40 or 50 years.”
Air Canada president Calin Rovinescu warned that developing a leading-edge aerospace technology is no guarantee it will succeed in the marketplace.
“The first Concorde (supersonic) flight was in 1976. Here we are in 2014 and the industry is no longer interested in supersonic for a number of reasons — chiefly efficiency, safety and comfort. Because a technology exists, it doesn’t mean it makes sense to do it.”
The consensus is that it’s going to be a slog, a step by step evolution — lighter carbon-fibre composite materials like those on Boeing’s 787 and Bombardier Inc.’s CSeries, as well as new-technology engines like Pratt & Whitney’s geared turbofan, which is flying on the CSeries, and GE-Safran’s rival CFM engine.
Tony Tyler, president of the International Air Transport Association’s 240 airlines that account for about 85 per cent of global traffic, said in a recent interview (see video) that he foresees general improvements in coming decades; better safety, comfort, speed, performance, flight frequency, reliability. And a continuing cutthroat industry.
But how aviation evolves in the next decades does not depend solely — or even largely — on airlines, said Rovinescu, who is also chairman of IATA this year.
“The answer has to start with how nations view aviation,” Rovinescu said in a telephone interview. “Generally, they’ve seen aviation as a major element of economic development, economic nationalism,” which is why so many were state-owned, including Air Canada, until recently.
There are still restrictions on foreign ownership of airlines in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and “there has to be a national debate if (those) restrictions are to be completely eliminated,” said Rovinescu.
“It’s time, frankly, to do away with old-fashioned restrictions,” said Tyler. “But in my view,” he added ruefully, “that will be very slow. If governments wanted to move in that direction, they would have. You can conclude from that that governments don’t want that to happen.”
Aviation executives complain that they treat their industry like a cash cow, collecting fees, taxes and charges, but are not investing back in the sector. Environmental activists vehemently disagree, noting that the infrastructure worldwide is publicly funded and airlines have had a host of advantages and bailouts over time.
But Tyler argued that sovereign constrictions are costing real future jobs.
“This industry is very fragmented, but you can’t get the consolidation you get in other industries. Why is this industry different? How many banks are there? How many telcos? How many pharmaceutical firms? How many car companies? There are far too many airlines.”
Rovinescu and Tyler argued that the consolidation through mergers of all major airlines in the U.S. has rendered the sector there more sustainable and profitable — even perhaps on a longer-term basis than usual in the notoriously cyclical airline business.
Rovinescu said that “the future for Air Canada is largely around global aviation, international activities.”
Not that domestic and U.S. routes will take a back seat, if only to feed the long-haul operations, including the Rouge leisure carrier division (Rovinescu said that it’s not a true low-cost carrier given its unionized staff and pension plan obligations).
“But flexing our muscle internationally is a valuable strategy for us,” largely centred on new long and thinner routes now possible to fly with its new Boeing 787s, a fuel-efficient aircraft.
The huge capital expenditures necessary in aerospace — $8 billion just for Air Canada orders for 787s and 737s — mean that “by definition, we have a vision of how the next 20 years are going to play out.”
“And our sense is that there will be increased pressure on fuel. So the best positioned carriers will be those with the most efficient aircraft.”
Higher density — packed airplanes — is also a priority, Rovinescu said. He dismissed concerns that the jamming-in has gotten out of hand.
“It’s one of those questions that will always be debated, as to what is the right mix between ensuring that airlines are viable and profitable and the comfort factor.”
“And it will be the purchasing power of consumers determining what it is they want to buy. If they want to buy a product put out by a low-cost carrier, other carriers will match that.”
Anyway, “seats aren’t shrinking, at least not in the way people might think,” said Cummings of WestJet, at least for his airline. Seat measurements have remained constant since WestJet’s birth in 1996, Cummings said in an email, but appear smaller because of seat redesigns.
“Where they have changed — and will continue to change — is in depth and weight. Seat design is evolving in an effort to create lighter, slimmer seats that save weight and room on commercial aircraft. The thick foam that dominates today’s conventional seats is being replaced by thinner, more lightweight material that is just as comfortable but at a reduced size and weight … and reduce fuel burn and keep fares as low as possible.”
James Cherry, president of Aéroports de Montréal, said that he has often gazed into the future.
“Every 10 years we have to produce a master plan that goes 20 years out.”
But that horizon is too short in the airline industry, so the last one was a 60-year outlook “that will take us to 2072 — not 100 years, but 58, pretty reasonable.”
“The fundamentals of air transport will not change dramatically. We’ll still need (three kilometres) of asphalt to take off and land. So we’re not looking at airports in the foreseeable future handling aircraft that take off ballistically (see sidebar) and have trouble on re-entry.”
Anti-gravity aircraft or electric batteries powering airplanes will probably happen one day, but “no work is being done by the serious guys on that yet,” Cherry noted.
“We’ll see airplane that are marginally better every cycle — that are quieter every generation, use less fuel, less polluting fuels, carry people longer, farther, and perhaps a little higher to be more (aerodynamically) efficient.”
Technology has actually cut the lineup shuffles drastically and will keep streamlining the airport experience, including electronic check-in, self-ticketing of luggage and placing it on conveyor belts.
But the next frontier, he said, is customs.
Security has become the bottleneck, a problem that Montreal’s ICAO is working on with airlines and airports. The goal is to move through an airport seamlessly — and fast — as various technologies scan each passenger and assess their security risk.
“We’re starting to see that in the U.S. with Pre-Check. People subject themselves to a pre-evaluation (vetting by intelligence services) to get the privilege of going through security quicker.”
Canada’s Nexus program is simply a “line jumper,” Cherry said.
“It’s a shorter line but there are no privileges. You still have to take off your shoes.”
Despite his 13 years at the helm of a major airport and extensive background checks, he noted, “the minute I buy a ticket, I’m no different than somebody (customs) know absolutely nothing about. That doesn’t make sense.”
The final frontier, he added, is incoming baggage.
“We’ve had great strides in all areas — outgoing baggage, customs, ticketing. But in the last 20 years, there has been the least improvement in incoming baggage.”
“It’s the same old thing: the baggage guy drives up to the plane in a trolley, dumps the baggage on it, drives to the conveyor belt, dumps it there.”
“Why not send the luggage by FedEx?”
That service is offered to golfers for their large bags of clubs, and shippers could make money by expanding it, he said.
And consumers would save their airline baggage fee.