Will Flying Get Its Mojo Back?

Changes are on the way that should ease the grim gauntlet of long lines, security checks and cramped seats

Where is air travel headed?
Where is air travel headed? Image courtesy of Flickr user bfraz

Remember when a trip to the airport was a little bit special—you know, when lines didn’t stretch to the horizon and you could keep your shoes on and no one, man or woman, would think of wearing sweatpants?

Been awhile, eh?

So allow me to offer a little good news: Technology is coming that experts say should dramatically reduce delays and cancellations, cut flight times, increase safety and slash fuel costs and carbon emissions.

But, alas, a few discouraging words: How quickly this technology comes on board is largely dependent on Congress, which hasn’t passed a long-term budget for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) since 2007.

The technology in question is known as “NextGen” and, put simply, it’s GPS for planes. Hard to believe, but most new cars have better tracking systems than multi-million dollar airplanes, which still rely on radar, as they have since the end of World War II. Radar is not that precise and it’s particularly ineffective over the ocean, which is why planes flying overseas have to stay about 100 miles apart. Its limitations also keep pilots from flying the most direct routes between airports.

NextGen would change all that. Plus, it would slow the ripple of weather delays that can spread like a bad rash through the air traffic control system. The goal is to have the satellite-based system operational by 2020. But there’s the money thing. The FAA estimates that making the switch could cost as much as $20 billion. And some airlines, which would have to install new equipment on their planes, have made it clear that they’re not going to start spending a lot of money until they see a firm commitment from the feds.

Faster check-in

Okay, so that’s not happening any time soon. What about more efficient ways to handle check-in? Better news there. You can now use your cell phone to check in with most major airlines at about 75 U.S. airports. No counter, no kiosk. You can either have the airline send an e-boarding pass, with its 2D barcode, to your phone, or you can download  the airline’s mobile app and your boarding pass will appear. At check-in, you just make sure your boarding pass is onscreen and the agent swipes your phone over the reader.

The technology is still evolving and, yes, you could have to rush back to the kiosk for a paper pass if your phone runs out of juice or the wireless signal is too weak. But this is where check-in is headed.

Another attempt to speed things up is a program called PreCheck, for so-called “trusted travelers.” Rolled out on a trial basis last month in Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit and Miami—with Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minneapolis-St. Paul coming soon—it allows frequent fliers who have been vetted by the government beforehand to skip the security procedures and keep their shoes on.

Then there’s lost luggage. Almost 40 million pieces of luggage are misplaced every year. So far, the technology of the future, where bags are tracked through radio frequency ID tags (RFID), is being used at only a handful of airports around the world, including in Las Vegas. But experts say RFID can make a big difference ensuring luggage gets on the right planes when passengers make a mid-trip connection. That’s when almost 40 percent of bags lose their way.

Here are more innovations in the travel biz:

  • Save room for peanuts: There’s now a mobile app called “B4 You Board” that lets you order food for your flight from restaurants in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. New York’s JFK and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport also have their own carryout apps.
  • Reach for the Skype: The Moscow airport has just started allowing passengers to do video check-in via Skype.
  • Buy before you fly: If you’re spending time in the Dallas Fort-Worth Airport, check in with Foursquare. Almost 100 stores there are using the app to pitch deals to people waiting for their flights.
  • It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity: Passengers on All Nippon Airways got the first taste of the newest commercial airliner a few weeks ago. Among the features on the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” are two inches of space between seats in economy, and windows that are 30 percent larger. Even better, LED lighting and higher humidity and cabin pressure are designed to keep you from getting jet-lagged.

Video bonus: You want to see the most efficient way to board a plane? Here’s the technique developed by Jason Steffen, an astrophysicist. Research says he’s right.

Today’s question: If you could change one thing about flying, what would it be?

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