State of air travel: Mid-year, 2019

This time of year is a slow season for important developments in air travel -- summer schedules and fares are pretty well set and fall-winter is still in development. So it's a good time to change gears and take a look at some of the current big long-term trends in travel -- both real and vaporware.

1. Kill Air Travel. Nothing is more ominous than the movement that has sprouted up, mainly in Europe, to discourage all air travel because it generates excessive and unnecessary carbon emissions. The French are seriously considering a total ban on domestic airline flights, and several influential forces are calling for increased taxes on fares and fuels to discourage travel by making it more expensive. I wouldn't be surprised to see this argument spread to the United States, and you can certainly expect to pay more for travel to Europe in coming years.


2. The "Sustainable" Fuel Chimera. You see a lot about experimental use of "sustainable" jet fuels, but what you don't hear much about is that the carbon dioxide emission from sustainable jet fuel is at least as bad -- and maybe worse -- than it is from conventional jet fuel. The advantage to the sustainable part, if any, derives from how the fuel is obtained, and you can see wildly varying estimates of how much C02 results from obtaining and processing alternative fuel supplies.

3. The Hydrocarbon Dilemma. The unfortunate truth is that aviation is uniquely tied to fossil fuels: weight is critical to airplane performance, and no other technology comes close to hydrocarbons in offering the energy per unit of weight. Hydrogen, of itself, is better, but it requires extremely heavy vessels and refrigeration equipment to carry it. The real technical challenge is to develop ways to store electricity or hydrogen that rival petroleum in energy content per pound. Researchers are working on improving batteries or super-condensers to do that, as well as hydrogen-rich compounds that don't require refrigeration, but the best foreseen results fall far short of what's needed for widespread aviation use.

4. Electric Airplanes. You will almost certainly see widespread deployment of all-electric or mostly-electric airplanes in a very few years. But they will be small and short-range. You won't see an electric replacement for the 737 or A320 for a long time, if ever. Current developments focus on drone-like planes for individual-trip urban transportation and delivery services. And although I'm a fan of electric transportation, the idea of hundreds of small drone-like planes, including autonomous ones, buzzing around over my head gives me the heebie-jeebies.

5. Supersonic Transports. Yes, you will probably see and hear a supersonic civil plane within a few years. Last year I would have said that the first one would be a business jet; when it comes to personal transport, top-executive egos trump high costs. But two credible proposals for supersonic transports are now on the table: a Mach 1.5 "low boom" plane from Lockheed-Martin that could fly over land without disturbing folks below, and a Mach 2.2 boomer from Boom limited to overwater routes. Both are small, in the 40- to 60-passenger range, and both would require high fares. But despite what you sometimes see, the Concorde was a big money-maker for British Airways, and I'm pretty sure that airlines could find enough high-fare passengers to fill their supersonic transports. The U.S. government is cooperating by a proposal to ban booms rather than a blanket ban on overland supersonic flights. But worries about excessive carbon emission could deter a return to supersonic.

6. Rail to the Rescue? France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, Japan, and China are developing high-speed rail systems that realistically could substitute for air travel in terms of travel time, cost, and convenience. And a robust electrified high-speed rail system could make a big dent on domestic U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. But what is Amtrak doing? It's talking about cutting long-distance trains and adding more short-haul routes, but they'd be diesel operated and nowhere near fast or frequent enough to do the job. If there's no national will, there's no way.

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