YOU WILL FLY. VIRTUALLY
The real conversation gets under way—after brief formal presentations and a lot of throat clearing and grousing about the current state of the airline industry—when Burt Rutan pulls a Burt Rutan: He advances an idea as odd-sounding as many of his aircraft have been odd-looking. According to Rutan, the Internet's most prolific industry (and we don't mean G-rated eBay) will develop the technology to enable radical change in the demand for, and consequently the very nature of, commercial aviation.
Rutan believes we're seeing the first signs of the dismantling of the American road-warrior business culture: "Don't people realize that business travel is almost defeated already? In my company, I've lost half the demand for business travel just in the last three or four years, and I am very much looking forward to not having to do any at all."
The idea is that much commercial travel will become irrelevant thanks to high-fidelity virtual reality networks. "In only 20 years, we're going to have systems where we can 'sit down' with someone and it will be indistinguishable from being there," Rutan continues. "There is such an enormous demand to do that, to get rid of this quagmire of gridlock—and these enormous airplanes aren't going to solve the problem of getting to the airport. You might ask where the money is going to come from to make this technology flourish. It'll come from the porn industry.
"The ability to go out and buy an orgasm with a beautiful woman with no risk of disease will also create the kinds of things that you will need to truly make it so that
you don't have to take a business trip—the feel of that handshake, all the senses you have of knowing that you are there. Phenomenal amounts of money will be dumped into phenomenally good virtual reality, so we won't have to go to the damn airport in the first place."
Rutan's idea elicits various reactions, to say the least. Setting aside whether VR that good can be developed, Boeing's Muellner sees the notion of technology reducing the demand for travel as culturally myopic.
"While right now business travel is down, I don't think it's going to stay down. It and leisure travel will increase because the vast majority of the world has never been on an airplane! They're in emerging economies, and while virtual connectivity allows you to do a lot of things, personal contact is still what a great part of the world depends upon for establishing relationships that lead to long-term success. People really want to see their relatives, not watch them on TV. They want to see the Pyramids, snorkel with the rays—not watch it on television, or even feel it."
Rutan's VR argument highlights a fundamental prediction about the future of aviation: Computer technology has barely begun to transform the human-machine interface. This includes the operation of airplanes themselves. Cockpit controls will become intuitive, immersive VR interfaces, guiding pilots along crystal-clear highways in the sky even in zero visibility. Such technology will be critical if the air taxi and UAV systems predicted by Moore, MacCready and Muellner are to fly. Despite the processing power found in state-of-the-art fighters like the F/A-22, the age of the thinking flying machine has not even dawned. It will dawn, and that will open the control of aircraft to far more people than ever before—while some, in Rutan's vision, simply stay home.
AIR TAXI vs. SUPERLINER
Air travel will of course survive. But there are huge questions: Big airplanes or small? A centralized system dominated by mega-airlines (pecked to pieces by low-cost start-ups like JetBlue) or a decentralized, distributed system? Supersonic, hypersonic, VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) or high-performance air taxis? The future probably holds all of these, but consider how interesting a devolution of the airline system would be.
Today's hub-and-spoke network funnels travelers to smaller cities by bouncing them through hub airports near the big metropolises. Everyone except business titans, general-aviation enthusiasts and salespeople bound for clients in the sticks flies on aircraft that are, basically, big or bigger. As travel time to bloated airports grows longer—and it will grow longer unless there's a massive shift to public transit—the system will become more painful, especially when recession-dampened passenger volume recovers. Airport security challenges will continue to frustrate, and that adds up to a perpetual mess.