AT THE START of every other recent decade the crystal-ball gazers could look into the future and dazzle travelers with promises of dashing new airplanes that could fetch us all to distant climes at breathtaking speeds, in new comfort.
Before the '50s had even arrived we were crossing the Atlantic in planes with berths, eating splendiferous meals that took 400 miles of piston-engine travel just to serve. The Boeing Stratocruiser not only had berths, it had a cocktail lounge on a lower deck. Nobody mentioned that it had been refashioned from a bomb bay.
Before the '50s were out we were traveling on jets -- not very long range at first, but they were propless planes all the same. And we were marveling that a coin could be stood on end in mid-flight without being jarred.
By the time the '60s were over we were asking ourselves, "Would it be the Soaring '70s?" The huge new 747s were in the wings to carry 400 people in one gulp. So were the supersonics, which would really make it possible to cut the time between America and Europe to 3 1/2 hours. "Astounding!" said the adventurous. "Unnecessary!" said the environmentalists.
And now here we are in the '80s, for the first time without a fancy-dan airplane that will revolutionize anything. (Indeed, with soaring fuel costs, the airlines will settle for a fair profit on their current models.) If we are going to be revolutionary in the wild blue yonder it will be in service. Braniff has promised better food, better on-time arrivals, faster baggage service and what it calls "young airplanes." All those wind-up-the-rubber-band aircraft will be retired in favor of jets in chartreuse and heliotrope as well as supersonics with Braniff markings.
Pan Am has welded itself onto National Airlines, which will mean a whole new route system. Braniff has a new route system, too, which takes it into the Far East and to Europe, whereas traditionally it had flown to the southwest and to South America. It will take delivery on the 747SP, which has previously been flown by Pan Am on the nonstop route New York to Tokyo and the nonstop route Los Angeles to New Zealand.
The 747 will be stretched to lengthen the upstairs cabin. Dan Colusy, president of Pan Am, has said that the dining room of the upper deck, which has given the airplane a feeling of old ship travel, will be jettisoned in favor of providing more sleeperette seats. The sleeperette is almost a full-stretch litter with foot rest and deep tilt. Philippine Airlines leans toward the Japan Air Lines concept of berths. In that sense, it is back to the '50s.
The only really new airplanes will be Boeing's short-range 767s, a wide-bodied twin-engine jet for short hauls, and a 757, conventional body also for short distances. Seats will be closer together to maximize the payload and to some extent offset the zooming cost of fuel.
Lockheed, which has come up with a version of its 1011 called the Dash 500, if flirting with a hydrogen airplane which, if it happens, its people say, would be a bigger advance than the move from regular propeller planes to jets. Hydrogen fuel could be manufactured at airport sites and carried in enormous containers aboard the plane. Such a plane built from scratch is more than a decade away, but it would be possible to convert one in three or four years.
Commuter trains may be a national disgrace in the eastern United States, but elsewhere -- especially in Europe -- there has been lots of work on the railroads. The '80s promise high-speed trains in France. Germany is putting the finishing touches on a train that will operate on magnetic levitation, riding its own roadway at 250 miles an hour. Its appearance in North America in this decade is altogether possible.
The real wonder of the '80s, however, will not be trains or planes but a miniscule electronic chip that will do wonders for automobiles and give new meanings to computers used by hotels. Linked to sonar and radar, the chip will be able to warn the driver of dangers that lurk ahead on the road -- an oncoming car in the wrong lane, a wet or icy patch of highway.
It will be possible for the computer to relieve the driver of the ticklish business of braking a car properly so that it won't go into a skid or hydroplane out of control. Even more amazing is a gadget that will require the drive to match a moving needle with a stationary one before the ignition will make contact. Those who have tippled too much and flunk the test will be unable to put the car on the road.
Other dials on the dashboard will advise the driver how much fuel remains in the tank -- assuming he can still find an open gas station and can still afford the price -- computed to miles driven at chosen speeds. The computer will also adjust the speed at which the car is driven in order to conserve the most gas.
In hotels the computer will take over the instant the waiter takes the customer's order and punches it into the machine. That operation will notify the chef what to prepare, will advise the supply department what is being taken out of the grocery inventory and will tell the financial computer to enter the cost of the order on the guest's bill.
The night clerk, who formerly had to divide his time between posting charges from a stack of checks to individual customer accounts and at the same time fish for the keys of guests coming back to bed down for the night will no longer be an auditor. Moreover, the whole system of cost controls can be sent by satellite from hotels in foreign cities to the headquarters of Hilton International and Inter-Continental in New York, to Hyatt in Chicago or Western International in Seattle.
Hotels will come in different classes. Hilton is building a network of low-cost inns across Brazil which it will call Brasiltons. Inter-Continental will offset its luxury properties with new Forum Hotels, middle-priced lodgings in Europe and the Middle East where, like their Penta in Munich, no one will take your bag unless you request it, and you carry your own bag of soiled clothes to the laundry.
At the same time Marriott will unveil a Cairo hotel built out of a palace created for Empress Eugenie at the opening of the Suez Canal. Her chambers will be public rooms overlooking the Nile.
Hyatt's Joseph Kordsmeir sees hotels built for guests who want elegance, for the business traveler and for the tourist. Trade shows installed in hotels will attract buyers to central cities, thus bringing an end to the traveling salesmen jokes, too. That would be real progress for the '80s.