Up in the Air

A look into how the business of air travel innovates.

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Airplanes and the Business of Getting Around
This week, we’re looking at the future of air travel. We’ll begin by looking back at how the airline industry has historically been highly innovative. We’re also checking out some of the wild and wacky ideas that may make their way into commercial air travel in the next few years. In particular, we’re examining the phenomenon of flygskam (flight shame) and considering what — if any — effect it’ll have on the airline industry’s environmental and business practices.

We’ll also examine the power of harnessing small data in AI, consider the power of defining what a company isn’t, and look at X (formerly known as Google X), arguably one of the most difficult-to-define companies in Silicon Valley (which is saying something).

We hope you’ve been enjoying this newsletter and would love any feedback (erica@nycmedialab.org). Thank you again for reading!

Erica Matsumoto
NYC Media Lab

There was a time when air travel was glamorous. Back when flying was an experience reserved for the relatively elite, people got dressed up to fly and looked forward to hurtling through the air in a metal tube. To wit, check out this photograph of well-dressed Delta passengers enjoying some excellent in-air service in 1959:

Source: Business Insider / Delta Flight Museum

Nowadays, most people look forward to a future flight with dread. Seats seem to be ever-shrinking, personal space is non-existent, and in-air rage seems to be an epidemic, as evidenced by last week’s hubbub over a man punching the back of a woman’s seat after she reclined her seat:

Modern air travel also has massive environmental implications. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, carbon dioxide emissions from all commercial flights, including cargo and passenger planes, in 2018 accounted for 2.4 percent of all global CO2 emissions that year — a 32 percent increase over 2013. Americans are a huge part of the problem: outbound flights from the U.S. represented about a quarter of the world’s passenger flight emissions in the study.

However, there are signs that the future of flying will look — and possibly even feel — much better than today.


Before we dive in, we’d like to take a moment to consider what it’s like to work in the airline industry while there’s immense change afoot. Luckily, the airline industry is generally considered to be one of the most innovative industries in the world. In part, this is due to the industry’s high level of competition and slim margins, which forces all companies to innovate in order to survive.

Delta’s rollout of a new, trackable pet carrier, CarePod, is emblematic of the drive to innovate and continuously improve flyers’ experiences in a bid to attract customers. The comments by Delta Cargo’s vice president, Shawn Cole, are illuminating. While Cole spoke to the CarePod’s value to flyers traveling with their pets, he was also careful to emphasize that the CarePod’s rollout makes Delta “the only airline to offer [a] premium pet travel solution.” By underscoring Delta’s cornering of the premium pet travel solutions market, Cole’s comments belie the business reasoning behind the CarePod rollout: it’s about attracting flyers traveling with their furry companions and peeling them away from competitors.

However, another — more interesting — reason underpinning the airline industry’s relentless innovation is many companies’ openness in pursuit of better ways to do business. The airline industry has embraced hackathons — more often thought of as the realm of Silicon Valley techies — as a way to invite cross-industry and cross-functional expertise into its innovation work.

Kevin O’Sullivan, Lead Developer for the SITA Lab, observes that airports, airlines, and other travel-related operations have embraced hackathons to “eke out any new spark of inspiration that will lead to the latest technological innovation to enhance their customers’ experience or improve operations and staff efficiency.”

At the end of the day, though, regardless of the bells and whistles airlines and airports add to the air travel experience, the bottom line is this: we all just want to get from point A to point B with minimal suffering and fuss. Consistency — not flashiness — is the most important selling point for airline carriers.

With that said, here are some of the most interesting next-generation innovations coming down the runway in air travel.

UNDER PRESSURE TO GO GREEN The aviation industry is starting to take sustainability more seriously. Thanks in part to flight-shaming activists like Greta Thunberg, flygskam (flight shame) is gaining popularity (commercial travel in Sweden has already dipped by 4 percent) and promoting airliners to worry that they could lose passengers unless they get their green acts together.

In a recent conference call, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes told industry analysts that it’s only a matter of time before American consumers follow Swedes’ examples by looking for more environmentally-friendly alternatives to commercial air travel. “This issue presents a clear and present danger, if we don’t get on top of it,” he said. “We’ve seen that in other geographies and we should not assume that those sentiments won’t come to the U.S.”

Obviously, airlines aren’t taking the threat of losing customers lying down. Carriers are intensifying efforts to cut emissions to ease customers’ concerns.

In 2016, the world’s airlines, including U.S. carriers, signed a voluntary agreement, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. In that pact, the industry pledged to keep carbon emissions from growing above a 2020 baseline on international flights (critics note, however, that the scheme didn’t account for domestic flights’ environmental impact).

In October, Citigroup called flight shaming “a real threat” to the airline industry. It warned that carbon offset programs, such as planting trees, could reduce industry profits by as much as 44 percent by 2025.

Regardless of profit concerns, some airlines are already making strides toward reducing their environmental impact. These are only a few of the carriers making investments and commitments towards reducing their environmental impact:

  • Last month, JetBlue announced plans to become carbon neutral on all domestic flights by offsetting its fleet’s CO2 emissions with several carbon reduction organizations starting in July 2020 and to use an alternative fuel source for flights leaving from San Francisco

For more on the possibility of sustainable air travel, watch the first installment of Sam Chui’s vlog series exploring sustainability in aviation:

INNOVATING TOWARD A RADICALLY DIFFERENT FUTURE There are also signs that the future of air travel could look radically different from what it is today. Alice, a nine-seat all-electric 650-mile range aircraft manufactured by Israel-based Eviation and unvailed in Paris in June 2019, is just one example of the massive shifts that could happen in the future of flight. Alice is expected to enter service in 2022 at a cost of as little as $8 per 100 miles covered (for comparison, fossil fuel for a standard small aircraft today costs about $400 per 100 miles).

There are also numerous companies innovating in supersonic, urban air transport, single pilot flight, and even pilotless aircraft. Some observers believe that pilotless aircraft are an inevitability; the only question is when they’ll enter production. As far back as 2011, then-Boeing CEO James Albaugh predicted, “A pilotless airliner is going to come; it’s just a question of when. You’ll see it in freighters first, over water probably, landing very close to the shore.”

However, completely removing the pilot from the equation isn’t the only possible change to air travel. Airbus CTO Paul Eremenko recently said, “The more disruptive approach is to say maybe we can reduce the crew needs for our future aircraft. We’re pursuing single-pilot operation as a potential option and a lot of the technologies needed to make that happen have also put us on the path towards unpiloted operation.”

One possible way to realize this has been suggested by French Air and Space Academy (AAE) and NASA Ames/Rockwell Collins research, which recommends a ground-based operator — akin to how contemporary military drone operators control aircraft from half a world away. AAE member Jean Broquet, a former designer of automated satellite control systems, says this could be put into effect with Pilot-Ground operators (PGs) would being qualified as pilots, including holding a type rating. Estimates of the efficiency gains this would produce vary: the AAE estimates that one PG could simultaneously manage up to five flights in short- to medium-haul operations, while NASA’s “super-dispatcher” concept theorizes that a trained pilot could remotely oversee up to a dozen aircraft at once.

There’s also a distinct possibility that the planes of the future could look radically different from today’s planes, if Airbus has anything to say about it. After decades of stagnation (today’s airplanes aren’t much different-looking from or faster than those of the fifties), there’s a real possibility of massive disruption to the status quo in the coming years.

Airbus’ aerodynamic, remote-controlled MAVERIC prototype — a “giant flying wing” — could revolutionize commercial flight by reducing emissions by 20 percent. The design is pretty wild:

Source: Popular Mechanics Here’s a view of the full plane:

Source: Popular Mechanics AIRPORTS AS PLEASANT DESTINATIONS Prior to the flight itself, airports themselves — historically merely an unpleasant limbo before getting onto your flight — are making an effort both to improve the experience of traveling through them and to transform into destinations in and of themselves.

Airport-level improvements are taking a variety of forms. Perhaps most familiar to frequent fliers is the introduction of biometrics at many large airports. These systems, which verify fliers’ identities through fingerprints or facial features, speed them through security and boarding processes.

Biometrics aren’t the only technology being deployed to improve the airport experience. Many airport operators — including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — are investing in AI technology for scanning both carry-on and check-in bags. According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s executive director, Rick Cotton, the technology, which is expected to debut in LGA by mid-2020 and other area airports by 2025, will “make security screening a more rapid process.”

Changyi Airport in Singapore is among a number of airports that’s expanding the use of biometrics to improve other parts of the traveler experience. It recently began a trial at Terminal 4 allowing Singaporeans to walk through arrival immigration without showing their passports or scanning their thumbs. In lieu of travel documents, Singaporeans going through Terminal 4 can clear immigration by going through an automated lane where they’re identified through either an iris scan or face capture.

Speaking of Changyi, this airport is also one of the leaders in making itself a destination in and of itself. Among other attractions, the airport boasts the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, an indoor forest, a kid-friendly greenspace called Canopy Park, and even an immersive experience studio.

Source: Culture Holidays Small Data Can Play a Big Role in AI Contrary to popular belief, big data isn’t the only form of data that can bolster a company’s AI initiatives. Small datasets in the order of kilo- or megabytes are often overlooked, costing enterprises valuable opportunities to train AI with small data and transform processes. 7 min read The Power of Defining What Your Company Isn’t Investors and employees want to know what companies stand for. Knowing this, most companies seek to affirmatively define their values and orientation; however, it can be just as — if not even more — effective for a company to define itself in terms of what it isn’t. 6 min read Inside X, Google’s top-secret moonshot factory

X — formerly Google X — seeks to take crazy ideas seriously and thereby help them come to fruition. It’s an interesting idea, but… does it really work? And what does it actually mean? WIRED writer Oliver Franklin-Wallis takes readers inside one of Silicon Valley’s most interesting workplaces.

22 min read This Week in Business History

February 17, 1913: Oregon passes the United States’ first-ever minimum wage

Massachusetts had passed a similar law the year before, but the Massachusetts law took effect after the Oregon one. Twenty-five years later, in 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would sign the United States’ first federal minimum wage — 25 cents/hour — into law. The chart below shows the U.S. federal minimum wage through history, along with what it would be worth in today’s dollars (click through to the original article for an interactive version):

Source: CNN Since then, the federal minimum wage has been raised 22 times. The current level — $7.25/hour — was set in 2009. Cities and states, which retain the right to set their own minimum wages, have set higher wages in some areas, leading to vociferous debates over what the minimum wage should be in a given area.

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