29th Jul 2018

What Has the Internet Done to Air Travel?


If you were around decades ago, you probably remember a vastly different air travel experience. From lax security to smoking on airplanes, the world of commercial flight has changed in a lot of ways. But perhaps the most transformative (and interesting) changes have occurred in the years following the birth of the Internet.

Most people would probably agree that the Internet-fuelled changes have largely been positive. Online check-in saves travellers time, and digital boarding passes eliminate the need for endless paper printouts (an environmentally-friendly solution). We can also find cheaper flights via flight search apps and discover exciting new travel destinations by browsing Instagram.

But the Internet and its associated technologies have made dramatic changes for both better and for worse. The Internet has irrevocably altered the entire landscape of air travel, with outcomes good, bad, and even just downright jarring. It’s fascinating to explore the way this industry has transitioned and how it’s impacted the ways in which we travel.

Today, let’s take a look back at how the Internet has helped evolve our favourite form of travel: flight.

Air Travel in the 90s (and Earlier)

Remember when travelling by plane was an event? Passengers would dress to the nines, much like they were headed to the horse races. Flight was seen as a luxurious occasion that demanded your finest clothes. Glamorous stewardesses served fancy meals on tables where you had plenty of legroom. Your needs were attended to with ease and your comfort was a priority.

These days, passengers often feel a bit more like cattle. We’re shuttled onto our flights in ever-more cramped seating, then sit anxiously awaiting our peanuts and complimentary soda. Dress up? Who has the time or inclination? Now we throw on a pair of our cosiest sweatpants and make an attempt at looking decent.

This may be an exaggeration, but it serves to demonstrate the fact of the changing world of air travel.

But the changes go far deeper. As recently as the 90s, booking travel was still a lengthy process. We had to phone travel agents and airlines to book our flights, then receive paper tickets in the mail and printed boarding passes at check-in. We did not have a wealth of choices about flight schedule or pricing. By the mid-1990s, however, the digital tide was slowly beginning to turn.

In 1993, the first incidences of electronic tickets (E-tickets) began to appear. This trend was slow to catch on, as many travellers reportedly didn’t want to travel without the “comfort” of their familiar paper ticket. It’s interesting to think of a time when we still felt suspicious of the trustworthiness of digital records. By 2018, we board flights almost exclusively by scanning our mobile phones, or at least by presenting tickets we printed at home, after successfully checking in online.

In the past, flight options were limited to what was offered to you. If you called up an airline to book, you had to accept the given price at face value. Going through a travel agent might secure you a better bargain, but that was an additional complicated process to undertake.

Fast-forward to today, when there are an endless number of flight aggregate sites, budget fare apps, and so much more. We can acquire dirt cheap flights if we travel last minute, or track specific routes to be sure we get our tickets when prices are at their lowest. Entrepreneurs have made whole careers out of teaching people “flight hacking” or strategies to come up with the cheapest possible flights, often maximising frequent flyer miles in the process.

None of this would have been possible without the Internet.

How We Find and Book Air Travel

By giving us more choice and far more control over the travel booking process, the Internet has not only made air travel easier, it’s made travel more affordable than ever before. With sites and apps like Skyscanner, Momondo, and Hopper, just to name a few, we can instantly compare the prices of various flight options from dozens of competing airlines.

The Internet has also generally made our travel research simpler and far more fun. From informative travel blogs to inspirational planning apps, you can build an itinerary for your dream trip using just your mobile device. You can check on TripAdvisor to find the best hotels in your destination, looking at the ratings and reviews of other travellers to compare options. And if you want to travel on a budget, you can use Internet-based phenomena like Airbnb to nab amazing deals on incredible properties.

At the Airport

Internet technology has no doubt streamlined our airport arrival process, particularly with the emergence of digital ticketing. You no longer have to worry about accidentally leaving your tickets at home, because they’re now safely inside your phone, and let’s be honest, there’s no way you’re leaving home without that!

If you’ve already checked in for your flight online, there’s no need to wait in a long queue (unless you’re checking a bag). For those who travel light, you can simply arrive at the airport with your carry on luggage and head straight to security.

Once you’re through security, it’s time to sit and wait for your flight. These days, most airports offer free Wi-Fi, which is certainly a convenience that keeps us entertained while we relax before our flight. With email notifications from the airline as well as apps that alert you of travel delays, the Internet also makes it easier to stay aware of your flight status. Hopefully, you can get the notice of a delayed flight before heading to the airport, but that doesn’t always happen. If you’re already inside, these apps can keep you updated on your boarding gate, boarding time, and more, so you barely have to look up from your device.

The In-Flight Experience

Now it’s time to board the flight. Unfortunately, these boarding queues are always a bit chaotic, no matter how far technology advances. Perhaps it’s our human nature to want to be first to board the plane, but that’s a sociological discussion best saved for another time.

Your boarding pass scanned (probably via a QR code on your smartphone screen), you’re ready to find your seat. On many airlines, your seat likely comes with a screen built into the seat back in front of you. On this, you can watch movies and tv shows, listen to music, and sometimes play games. This technology is already on its way to transformation, too, with the growth of satellite-based Internet connectivity. Streaming entertainment is set to become the latest feature, with airlines such as Delta, United, and Southwest having already adopted wireless streaming.

While plenty of passengers still choose to curl up with a book during a long flight, many more of us take advantage of technology’s contributions, like the in-flight video screens. But in recent years, we’ve seen the expansion of Wi-Fi on flights. Using wireless Internet while in the sky? Pretty amazing. In 2003, Boeing introduced the first in-flight Wi-Fi service, and this feature has only catapulted across the industry in the intervening years. While it’s not a given amenity just yet, it’s likely that passengers will come to consider in-flight Wi-Fi as a given, forcing all airlines to adopt it as a service.

For Better and For Worse

It would be easy to look at the technological advances of flight and believe that the changes have been nothing but positive. But with every step forward, there can also be steps back. It can be argued that the Internet, though it has undeniably made the air travel process more efficient, has also brought about some negative outcomes.

First, the airline market could be viewed as oversaturated. Cluttered with flight comparison websites and last-minute travel apps, perhaps we’re merely drowning in choices. And with budget airlines and low-cost carriers abounding, the race to provide the cheapest flight could be on. On one hand, this is good news for passengers, especially those looking to save some money. But on the other hand, will it mean a decline in the level of quality we can expect when flying?

Better efficiency has generally translated into less luxury for passengers. Budget airlines like RyanAir hop across Europe, but those budget costs come with a budget experience. You pay for every single extra on an airline like RyanAir or EasyJet, shelling out dollars for a seat assignment, early-boarding, and more. These fees can feel annoying (and even hidden) but at rock bottom fares most of us are willing to play along.

In many ways, the ease and efficiency of Internet-based air travel has made the entire experience more commonplace and less of a “special occasion.” Forget your fancy luggage; RyanAir only allows a small carry-on. Ready for your in-flight meal? Better pay up. Meals are no longer free. Plenty of non-budget airlines have followed suit as well. While even coach passengers used to be able to expect a hot meal in-flight, the early 2000s saw the disappearance of this amenity on many domestic flights. This was purported to save airlines millions of dollars, and no doubt it does, but it does result in some hungry passengers. Fortunately, international flights still offer an included meal service on almost every airline.

Some would argue that social media, spawned by the Internet, has negatively affected travel. Our constant connectivity may make it harder for us to actually be on holiday since we can’t seem to let go of our devices. That same issue could make it more challenging for people to remain present in a given moment (are you truly seeing the Eiffel Tower, or just Instagramming it?) which changes the travel experience completely. While these examples apply less specifically to air travel and more to travel as a whole, it’s not too difficult to see how the ubiquity of Internet technology could have some negative impacts on the overall travel industry.

Not to mention, the Internet and social media have given rise to the notion of FOMO---fear of missing out. Does FOMO turn our travel adventures into a competition of sorts? Do we visit places just to say we’ve been there? In what ways might the growth of social media influencers and other factors be making us more envious, more impatient, and less aware of the motto: “the destination matters more than the journey”? The news has shown, after all, that many millennials will choose a travel destination these days based solely on its “Instagrammability.”

Is Flying Less Important Than it Once Was?

In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes, “As a standard of global connection and fast access....air travel is now largely obsolete.” But his statement holds true only in a sense. Now, flying across the globe is not always a necessity. We can hold meetings via services like Skype with business associates on the other side of the world. We can sustain transcontinental romantic relationships because of our ability to send instantaneous messages and images. Essentially, air travel is obsolete as the primary way of connecting distant points. Flying is no longer our main way of bridging the gap---the Internet does it for us.

But as a means of travel and transportation, air travel is as important as ever. Each year, commercial airlines sell some 4 billion+ seats on airplanes. This figure showcases definite growth. Just ten years ago, the number was half as large, and in the coming years, it is expected to grow exponentially. By 2036, estimates place the annual flight load at nearly 8 billion people.

So, air travel is most certainly alive and well. But what can we make of its changes, both good and bad?

One question to ask regards how passengers feel about air travel: is the focus of airlines still on customer service?

Airlines would like you to believe that customer care is their top priority (and no doubt the safety of passengers is first and foremost) but the air travel experience can make passengers feel like they don’t matter too much.

Airlines are notorious for overbooking flights, and though there are many reasons for this (most of them financially-driven), it doesn’t change the unpleasantness of the customers’ experience. Getting bumped from an overbooked flight can be a major annoyance, and could impact other parts of your holiday too, delaying your itinerary, etc. Though statistics do not indicate that the growth of Internet technology has lead to an increase in overbooked flights, it may have impacted the ways in which these issues are dealt with.

This article focuses on how airlines use complicated algorithms to determine which passengers will be bumped off of an overbooked flight. These include elements such as---according to United Airlines’ contract of carriage---“a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, [and] status of frequent-flyer program membership.” This means that, ultimately, airlines are less likely to kick off the customer who is more valuable to them in the long-term. Generally, this includes members of their frequent flyer program as well as those who have booked first class tickets, which are typically business travellers. Business travellers are statistically less likely than leisure travellers to comparison-shop for airfare, too, so the multitude of choices given to us by the Internet may actually result in the average traveller being more likely to be bumped from an overbooked flight.

Looking Toward the Future

Will Internet technology continue to modernise our flight experience? It looks like it. There are many developments on the horizon that will make use of growing tech capabilities. For instance, it is possible that we will see the advent of autonomous planes in our lifetime. We’ve already got driverless cars starting to appear, why not pilotless planes? There’s a lot to be worked out for this to work safely and seamlessly however, so this development is not just around the corner. And at the moment, few people would probably volunteer to be a passenger in a pilot-less plane.

Another future advancement has to do with the blockchain---the technology behind the cryptocurrency known as bitcoin. This method could be used to better track passengers’ checked luggage from start to finish, resulting in greater accuracy and fewer lost suitcases.

Do you think air travel has been changed by the Internet for better or for worse?

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