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TechWatch: Gaining Value From the Components of a System

Some of us who are older remember when air travel was fun. My first commercial airplane ride was from Chicago to Des Moines, stopping in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They served a meal, and I wore a tie out of respect for the occasion. That was 50 years ago.

My recent trip from Seattle to Bangui, Central African Republic, was also done in two pieces. The first leg took more than nine hours, and the second leg took about seven hours. They showed an array of movies on the individual screens. But it didn’t seem like anyone was having fun, and I didn’t see many ties.

Two days after returning from that trip, I had the opportunity to attend a satellite version of the new Boeing 787 roll out. The theme of the presentation was “returning the fun to air travel.” I hope this happens. If it does, technology will play a big part. But how this will work depends on the whole system of air travel, not just one piece.

The Airplane

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, due for test flights later this year and to enter service next year, offers what looks like a revolutionary experience. How much of the experience will reach the passenger will depend on what the airlines do with the product, but the potential is definitely there.

Boeing embarked on the 787 shortly after abandoning the idea of a very large airplane like its rival Air Bus is developing. One of the studies I recall from my days at Boeing was the passenger experience at Narita Airport near Tokyo, Japan. A survey revealed that 90 percent of the passengers landing at Narita were not going to Tokyo. Rather, Tokyo was a hub where the passenger had to land on the way to somewhere else. Boeing concluded that passengers would rather go “point to point” than to a hub. Without the hub, the route traffic would be less, requiring smaller, longer-range airplanes. That became the spec for the 787. Incidentally, unlike other applications of technology, the range of an airplane doesn’t need to increase forever. Once an airplane can go halfway around the world, it doesn’t need to go much further.

Since the airlines must be able to make money, this specification meant Boeing had to develop a very efficient airplane to allow the numbers to work for the airlines in terms of the cost-per-seat mile. This led to an all composite (plastic) airplane that is much lighter, and hence much more fuel efficient.

There is an important by-product of a composite airplane that offers the real revolution for the passenger. The airlines will be able to pressurize the cabin so the long flight is like sitting at 6,000 feet (rather than 8,000 feet on a traditional aluminum airplane). And the air can be humidified, making the travel experience much more comfortable.

I talked with a Northwest pilot on a recent flight about this innovation. He said what passengers really want is less hassle at security (more on this later) and better service. It is true, this would be great. But a technology breakthrough doesn’t come from asking people what they want, since this only provides answers in terms of what they know. I believe once passengers experience a better cabin environment, they won’t want to go back. Jet travel changed the passenger experience dramatically almost 50 years ago, and this change could be similar.

I listened to a long list of technology advances on the new 787 at the rollout, including electronic environments for the passengers. But I am betting that the ability to go more places directly and have better air in the cabin are the key advances for the passenger.

The Airline

The airplane alone, however, does not change the passenger experience. It gets sold to an airline that will configure the seats to meet its revenue goals (tighter seating means more revenue for the airlines regardless of the airplane design). The airline will also decide on the route structure it will offer. Hence more point-to-point flights are possible but not guaranteed with the new airplane.

The airline also controls how the pricing structures works. Information technology, enabling careful understanding of competition and pricing, is the only explanation for today’s completely irrational pricing structure. I one time saved $500 on a roundtrip to Zurich by taking a side trip to Copenhagen!

Technology has also dramatically changed the air-travel process. Purchasing tickets online is an innovation made possible by technology. Unfortunately, buying online carries significant risk, and I am not talking about the portion of the risk associated with using the credit card over the Internet. While most airline sites advertise they offer the lowest price, my experience shows otherwise. The prices are often higher than you can get from alternative sites such as www.sidestep.com or www.orbitz.com. Even a ticket agent, if you can wait through the messages about how important your call is, will often offer a lower price than you can find on the web.

There is little excuse for the state of some airline’s websites. United Airlines may have the worst website available for many more reasons than I have space for here. For my recent ticket purchase, I had to pay a $15 fee per ticket to purchase by phone, to get a route and price that was not available on their website, even though I have flown one million miles on United!

In the distant past, seats were assigned by selecting a sticker from a display of the cabin seats, and the sticker was placed on your ticket. Technology automation would have given us robots to move the stickers to our tickets, but thankfully the airlines did more than automation. Today’s seat selection enables choice from anywhere at anytime. This convenience is now being supplemented by a way to get more from the passenger. I recently paid $15 to move from a center seat in the back to an aisle seat near the front, on a Northwest flight to Minneapolis.

Automated baggage handling is another area of technology progress. Checking bags without the touch of a passenger service rep obviously saves money for the airline. It is often quicker also, though it reminds me that I am now an unpaid employee of the airline, doing for myself what used to be a service.

The Security System

Airports have continued to be a hassle, and security checks surely add to the difficulty. It seems that technology ought to lead to a much better solution than we are dealing with today. Yes, in these days of terrorism, security checks are a reality. But the way security checks are done does not always add to the feeling (or truth) of security. Here are a couple of recent experiences.

In the United States, a laptop computer must be taken out of the carrying case and put through the X-ray separately. This clearly adds time to the process. But in Europe and Asia, this is often not required. Is it needed or not? Does removing the laptop from the bag add to security?

Poorly trained security inspectors follow the rules to the letter. Here are two illustrations. Coming from Europe into Chicago last year, we had to leave the international security area to get our connecting flight to Seattle. When we reentered security, the inspector found a very small personal-size bottle of strawberry jam in my wife’s purse, saved from the previous flight. The inspector asked her if she had a half-quart plastic bag to put it in, since liquids could only be brought through security in a half-quart plastic bag. I tried to explain that the bags were needed for a number of liquids, but since this was just one, what would the bag do? The strawberry jam was thrown in the garbage! Did this add to security?

I had about a half ounce of toothpaste left in a 5 ounce container going through security last week. The tube was carefully rolled up. Again, the inspector said this was in violation of the 3 ounce limit for the container. I told him if it would make him feel better, he could throw it in the trash. He did. Did this add to security?

They make all of us take off our shoes because there was a shoe bomber. They use plastic knives with the rare meal on U.S. flights (though metal knives are still used on non-U.S. carriers). Does this add to security?

It is time for a good look at the system we call security. It must be proactively aimed at truly protecting the passengers, not just following a set of reactive rules that often make no sense. Technology could offer some real breakthroughs. But can regulations keep up with the new capability, or will the bureaucracy perpetuate today’s unnecessary inconveniences?

Conclusions

New airplane technology offers the potential for great improvement in air travel. The challenge is how the airplane is integrated into the airline system, and how the airlines are integrated into the airport and security systems. Air traffic control and many other pieces of the system come into play as well. If ever there was an opportunity for an analysis of the total system, and the use of technology to transform this system, now is the time. I am generally an optimistic person, but I don’t hold out a lot of hope for near-term change, in spite of the attractive solutions that are now available for pieces of the problem. I believe the Boeing 787 will offer a great experience, but that experience will likely be muted by the various airline, airport, and security parts of the system.

The airline illustration is important as a business in its own right. But it also acts as an illustration that technology advances for components of a large system can fall short of their potential if the entire system is not carefully examined.

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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