The future of travel: where do we go from here?
Catching a plane has become a part of everyday life. But as oil prices take off, environmental concerns rise and security levels soar, how long can it be before casual travel is consigned to history? Will August 2006 be remembered as the point of no return? Simon Calder takes a trip into the future
Tuesday 15 August 2006
The new Airbus A380 "superjumbo" will allow airlines to provide unparallelled levels of customer care, at least for those in first and business class. But Stelios suggests that our appetite for long-haul luxury may be attenuated by our consciences. "I hope that in the next 10 years people will figure out that being economical with your money when travelling pretty much equates with being responsible towards the environment."
Flying economy is greener than flying first class, which in turn is greener than flying on a private jet. So will son of Concorde ever be born? Not according to the easyJet founder. "I do not expect an increase in the cruising speed of aircraft, as history has shown that people will not pay for it," he says.
The trend is away from beach holidays, according to Peter Burrell of Exodus. He says that "experiential travel" will become more popular. "The world is a smaller place now, so what you do there is more important than the location. People favour holidays such as learning to cook in Vietnam, or cycling and trekking. People want new ways of seeing the same things."
The future has already arrived at some airports - notably Amsterdam Schiphol, where frequent flyers can get through passport control in the blink of an eye, thanks to the Privium scheme that scans the irises of their eyes.
"By 2016, the traditional passport, paper visas and printed tickets could be replaced by a credit-card sized ID containing a microchip that stores all personal travel information, from ticket and visa information to fingerprint scans," speculates Britain's biggest holiday company, Thomson. And a quick bit of surgery may speed progress still further: "Frequent travellers may even have the option to implant this microchip underneath their fingertips to further reduce travel time."
All at sea
The only consistently profitable part of the madly uneconomic travel business is sea cruising - although a decade from now this may no longer be the case, if investors wade in to cash in.
Frank Watson of the world's biggest travel guide shop, Stanfords in London, says guidebook sales have been stable for two years but will fall in favour of electronic formats. "Guidebooks are among the most readily adaptable types of books to electronic formats, such as podcasts." Cathy Packe, the producer of The Independent's online audio travel guides, says: "Books? Who needs them? Podcasts provide insider advice and inspiring atmosphere."
Hotels are diverging into mass purveyors of rest such as Travelodge and easyHotel on the one hand, and boutique properties such as the theatrical Tiger Lily, (which opened in Edinburgh last month) on the other. Rates fall, according to easyHotel founder Stelios. "More hotel rooms will be booked online, reducing distribution costs and increasing occupancy, thus reducing the cost to the consumer," he says.
There's no sign yet of easySpace, says Stelios. "I doubt that the number of tourists going into space over the next 10 years will be anything more than negligible."
As a couple of thrill-seeking tycoons have demonstrated, there is no fundamental obstacle to space tourism beyond having several million pounds in spare cash. But the environmental cost is huge. And besides the question of whether the means (enduring pain and spectacular motion sickness) justifies the end (a brief experience of weightlessness on the edge of space), the dangers involved in breaking free of the atmosphere have yet to be assessed.
"Snow sports have grown year on year and will continue to do so as leisure time increases," says Betony Garner of the Ski Club of Great Britain. "People want more challenging holidays and more obscure destinations, such as the Himalayas and Eastern Europe. Price-wise, the holidays will not increase too much but just stay in line with inflation."
The very concept of a vacation is beginning to disappear for some people, who have latched on to low-cost flying as a way to live double lives and can be considered to be on a permanent holiday. Thomson says that "by 2016, an 'overseas commuter belt' will be firmly established and commuters will consider their overseas home to be their primary residence. Properties in Marrakesh, Barcelona and Dubrovnik will be popular with culture-loving commuters. Professional types may opt for cities with vibrant business districts such as Hanover, Stuttgart and Verona."
Additional research by Niki O'Callaghan
In-flight magazines are experiencing a surge in popularity. For the past five days, every airborne almanac from Aer Lingus's Cara to FlyBe's Uncovered has been pored over by dispossessed travellers with no reading material besides the emergency evacuation instructions and the sick-bag. The most widely read is High Life, British Airways' glossy mag.
Several hours into a laptop- and paperback-free journey, the average passenger will probably reach page 97 and the Pilot of the Month feature (the airline equivalent of Playmate of the Month, only a little less racy). August's captain-with-cachet is David Norris-Warton. "Do you enjoy being based at Gatwick?" he is asked. "Yes, it is a lovely airport to fly from, with few delays."
Passengers whose flights from the Sussex airport were very late or cancelled in the past five days have not been amused. From this morning, the pilot will step out of the limelight; BA passengers are now allowed to take through the central search area this copy of The Independent or any other publication of their choosing.
But, since the discovery of an alleged terrorist plot to attack aircraft flying from Britain to the US, and the extraordinary events that followed, travellers are rapidly reassessing their priorities.
Our leading airports have resembled refugee camps rather than gateways to the world. For thousands of weekenders, a short hop to an alluring European city became a long battle with overstretched infrastructure and mis-informed personnel. Crossing the Atlantic can take longer than Alcock and Brown achieved in 1919, by the time Homeland Security and a stray mobile phone have disrupted the journey.
"Is your journey really necessary?" is now planted in the mind of every traveller who previously flew on a whim, a wing and a prayer. Where and how we travel 10 years from now is sure to be shaped by the impact of the meltdown at Heathrow airport.
For a decade, many of us have concluded that the future will be orange, in the shape of easyJet and its emulators. The no-frills revolution in the skies, which began at Luton airport on a bleak November day in 1995, has transformed our perceptions of Europe - and, starting this summer, North Africa and western Asia, now both on the low-cost map. With easyJet, Ryanair and newly competitive BA urging us to take everything for the weekend in the cabin, we've grown used to a flying start.
No longer. Between 31 July and this morning, BA passengers have experienced no fewer than five different cabin-baggage regimes. From today, the future of the average "suitcase-on-wheels", designed to be rolled on board, looks bleak. The dimensions of the single piece of baggage allowed through central search have been fixed at less than half the volume of the internationally agreed maximum, and the average wheelie-bag busts the Department for Transport's limits.
Given the absurd inconsistencies that previously prevailed, the "one-piece, no compromise on dimensions" policy must surely continue for a decade. And, as anything from cosmetics to toothpaste is outlawed, you had better get re-acquainted with that baggage carousel - or contemplate alternatives to fast and furious travel, now that it is no longer fast, merely furious.
Promiscuous weekending has become the norm because the rising number of "time rich, cash poor" travellers has coincided with a rapid expansion of airline networks to embrace places-you-never-knew-you-wanted-to-go.
No matter that you got ripped off in Reykjavik or rained on in Rzeszow - next Friday you could look forward to wheeling your suitcase in another hotel hall in a city whose name you can't pronounce and is probably nowhere near the airport anyway.
Not any more. Air travel has become, by an order of magnitude, less comfortable and predictable. One positive result could be that the average flyer's sense of value returns. Our frenzy of superficial sightseeing could be superseded by more thoughtful destinations and more profound exploration when we arrive.
For the first time, three enemies of casual aviation are in alignment: oil prices (high), stress (intense) and concern about the planet (growing). Ten years from now, August 2006 may be looked on as the tipping point where we began to seek more from travel than a £29 flight.
The first refuge of the frustrated flyer has been the railway: GNER and Virgin Trains are gleeful about the business they have picked up between England and Scotland in the past five days, while Eurostar says it has been attracting new customers at a rate of 7,000 a day. The cross-Channel train operator has full baggage screening (within a 15-minute check-in time) but neither confiscates toothpaste nor makes nursing mothers taste their infants' bottled milk. From next autumn, the travel time from London St Pancras to Brussels will be 111 minutes, and two hours 15 minutes to Paris Gare du Nord, with connections to Europe's rapidly expanding network of high-speed trains.
The six-hour rail journey from Waterloo to Provence may not compare with a 90-minute hop from Heathrow. But the benefit of the railways is that almost all the time on board can pass productively (for business travellers), happily (for holidaymakers) or both (for travel editors). One hazard lurks, however: the tighter aviation security becomes, the more tempting a target the railways present to terrorists.
The longer the trip you plan, the less consequential is the time it takes to get there. Exhibit A is France - which manages the neat trick of being both the most alluring nation in the world, in terms of visitor numbers, and the most popular destination for the French themselves. As British motorists who unwittingly found themselves gridlocked on the Autoroute du Soleil on 29 July will have discovered, Parisians depart en famille, en voiture et en masse to the south on the last Saturday of July. The day to avoid northbound is 26 August, when the arrondisements will suddenly receive a massive infusion of inhabitants.
During the four intervening weeks, this wave of cultured people constitute a barmy army of holidaymakers who extract maximum indulgence and enjoyment from the tiny universes they create on la plage or in la campagne, where they forge civilised relationships with the local baker, grocer and restaurateur. We may find that the world looks better the closer you get and the longer you stay - and rediscover the joys of several weeks in a British seaside resort or country cottage.
Even travellers whose horizons don't begin until Beijing are being urged to make fewer trips and stay longer. You might imagine that Mark Ellingham and Tony Wheeler, founders of Rough Guide and Lonely Planet respectively, are never happier than when you and I are haring across Asia or Africa, laden with a library of guidebooks. They may have been the midwives of independent travel, but they are attuned to the harm unrestrained tourism can do. Both now urge travellers to make fewer trips and spend longer at the destination: less can be much more. I think most of us believe we could improve our relations with host communities if we took the time - which should also make us culturally more sensitive and financially more generous.
Now that the chaos at Heathrow has given many of us the chance to reflect on what we seek from the world, our habits may shift radically. And Captain Norris-Warton and his hard-pressed airline colleagues must be pondering the future of travel - and their part in it, if any. "I enjoy spending time with my family, and sailing," he says. Just as well, Captain.
"All air travellers should be prepared to take reasonable actions to ensure their safety," says Todd Curtis, founder of the AirSafe.com website. Dr Curtis, whose whole career has been spent in aircraft safety, recommends that passengers should become profoundly vigilant of those around them, to reduce the chances of another catastrophic hijack. He also urges stricter rules for air travel - including banning anything in cabin baggage that could be used defensively, such as bullet-proof vests.
Another threat, which worries some in the aviation community much more, is the prevalence of illegally held shoulder-launched missiles such as Stinger rockets - capable of shooting down civil aircraft. Missiles are thought to be in the hands of groups ranging from Hizbollah in Lebanon to the Farc in Colombia. Systems that "fool" heat-seeking missiles are available and have been tested by the Israelis, but the cost of installing them on all the world's airliners would be intolerable.
The authorities are seeking to blunt the edge of terrorists' innovation by deploying ever more sophisticated machines. Attention is turning to scanners that can detect devices concealed within the body. But as Todd Curtis says: "There is no technology that can decipher a person's intentions. It is difficult to stop a determined hijacker from causing mayhem if that person is willing to die along with the other passengers."
Rolling down a hillside while strapped into a giant beach ball may not be your idea of fun, but for plenty of travellers this activity - known as "zorbing" - is one of a growing number of essential holiday experiences. Yet Pete Tyler, managing director of Neilson activity holidays, says that sailing will remain the favourite for British thrill-seekers, "hopefully fuelled by more success at the 2012 Olympic Games".
Your employer may be watching you tan, according to Thomson. "Companies will increase annual leave allocation, giving people more 'soft' holidays and less 'hard' holidays. 'Soft' holidays refer to a set amount of days where employees must work a minimum number of hours, albeit from the beach. 'Hard' holidays refer to a set amount of days where employees will be completely unreachable by their place of work."
Low-cost air travel
"Increased airport security will make it harder to innovate and save on the airport costs, typically the largest single-cost item a short-haul airline is faced with." That's the view of the man who started it all, Stelios Haji-Ioannou. The founder of easyJet says: "The aircraft manufacturers will make only marginal improvements in the models they currently produce. In any event, if there is a saving to be made because of technological innovation, they will make sure they keep most of the benefit by pricing the aircraft accordingly."
Jo Robertson of Monarch says: "Fares, in the aftermath of last week's security alert, will be pushed up as additional costs imposed on the airports will undoubtedly be passed on to the airlines. The industry may see an initial decrease in passenger numbers as a result of the recent events as passenger confidence takes a downturn, but events have shown that air travel does recover, and we would expect to see a return to current passenger levels quite quickly. North African destinations will also grow in popularity, with the recent increase in scheduled services to Morocco expected to expand into Algeria and potentially Libya - depending on the political situation there. Domestic services may suffer in the longer term, however, as the current level of domestic flying is unsustainable."
Even so, the production lines for narrow-bodied jets at Airbus and Boeing are being kept busy by start-up airlines from expanding regions such as Eastern Europe and South-east Asia. As the stranglehold of vested airline interests is loosened around the globe, easyJet and Ryanair are the prototypes for short-haul flying.
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