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Posted at 09:40 AM ET, 01/24/2013

Can we ever fix modern air travel?


People walk through the United Airlines Economy Class with personal entertainment systems on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 30, 2012 in Los Angeles, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian - GETTY IMAGES)

The problems with the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner are just the latest ills in a broken global air travel system that’s nowhere near as pleasurable, fun or exciting as it was even a decade ago. Chances are, if you traveled by airplane recently (and not just the Dreamliner), your trip was nasty, brutish and long. What’s needed is some way to break out of the “bigger, better, faster” innovation trap into which the aviation industry has fallen. So, what are some of the ways that we can radically re-imagine the future of air travel?

Well, for starters, let’s re-imagine the shape and functionality of the traditional airplane. Because, let’s face it, as innovative as the 787 Dreamliner is in terms of fuel efficiency and materials, it was basically just a bigger, better, faster airplane with the same cigar-shaped fuselage and two wings that we’ve had for over 60 years. As National Geographic recently pointed out, some of the plans on the drawing board are breathtaking: radical new shapes that resemble flying wedges, planes that fly in formation just like birds, or planes that fly at supersonic (or even hypersonic) speeds around the globe without the need to refuel.

Even these innovative designs, though, are really just incremental changes dressed up to look like disruptive ones. If we’re really allowing ourselves to think outside of the box, let’s take away the airplane entirely. And that’s where things could get really interesting, because that’s when you start to stress test the fundamental assumptions of modern air travel. What is an airplane, at the end of the day, if not a rather unpleasant (and expensive) technology for getting from point A to point B?

Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil has even theorized about the creation of a new technology along the lines of a Star Trek-like teleportation system, where we basically “beam” our minds to a waiting robot body in a different location. Thanks to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence over the next two decades, your new “self” would have the same emotions, intelligence and memories as your old “self.” If that’s way too Singularity for your tastes, how about holographic telepresencing — a way for you to meet others without actually being there in person? Or, for world travelers, how about the brave new frontiers of virtual tourism, where you travel by interacting with virtual reality or augmented reality environments? All three of these technologies, by the way, are now being considered by the European Union as radical alternatives to conventional travel.

Remember Einstein’s famous suggestion? “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” That’s what makes the world of innovation so complex and so fascinating — the people playing a game of “bigger, better and faster” often end up losing to risk-seeking entrepreneurs who rage-quit the old game and start an entirely new one. Even if you’ve never had the faintest urge to say, “Beam me up, Scotty,” a radical solution along the lines of teleportation or holographic telepresencing may be the only way to extricate ourselves from the current aviation logjam, where the "biggest aviation overhaul in American history" consists largely of replacing a radar-based navigation system with onboard GPS, and even our most well-intentioned attempts to re-think the airplane end in sparks and flames.

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By  |  09:40 AM ET, 01/24/2013

 
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