Trends in demographics, income inequality, EVs and virtual meetings leads to a falling use of today's system and a growing premium system.
Future Scenarios Addressed
Scenario 1 | Create Your Own Future State Scenario
Scenario 9 | Technology
Scenario 10 | Autonomy
Scenario 11 | Sustainability
Your Vision of the Future of Aviation
By 2050 a clear division will emerge, with premium priced polished and fast service "Stars" for the few, and a scarred set of aging and investment starved options for the many. The Stars system is an expansion of the current private jet travel system. New tech financed by SPACs and IPOs flows to small/mid sized new aircraft and facilities. Declining low cost aviation quality and falling middle class spending power leave a scarred general aviation system dependent on declining gov't support.
Detailed Scenario Submission
The limits of long term predictions
Predicting the path to an end state of anything in 2050 is at best a well informed and educated guess, but the aviation industry, with it's attendant and it's expensive and land hungry support infrastructure, it's long airplane production runs, and 20 year durability of airliners, some aspects do have a fairly high certainty. My scenario predictions are US centric, but should apply to western developed nations as well (where the majority of US aviation interconnections remain, although diminishing, through the study period).
Aviation operates and evolves within a slowly changing economic system and society that is subject to more sudden changes in politics and reactions to crisis (COVID, 9/11, 2007 ...). A great source of "crowd sourced" predictive context is here. Some extracts:
Public sees future promise in science and technology, few have faith in government’s ability to solve problems
Americans have a more negative view of another demographic trend: the aging of the U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by the year 2050, people who are 65 and older will outnumber those younger than 18, and 56% of Americans say this will have a negative impact on the country.
Only 14% of adults say, by the year 2050, the average working person in the U.S. will have more job security. About half (49%) say workers will have less job security, and 36% say jobs will be about as secure as they are now.
These factors point to an mostly inactive government, including in aviation.
As the previous 30 year should set the expectations for the ability to precinct 30 years into the future, what would have experts have NOT predicted in 1991 about the aviation of 2021?
I doubt that the need for TSA levels of passenger screening would have been expected. The need for this was created quickly and is an example of a system input that happened overnight. In 1991 the Concorde was an expensive but busy premium option. After the year 2000 all commercial SST flight disappeared. Would the experts of 1991 expected no supersonic option to exist in 2021? Probably not. But would they have suggested that a single model of airplane might suddenly vanish? Perhaps. Would the experts have seen the rise of a super-jumbo? Probably. That it would be no-longer in production after less than 10 years? Maybe not.
The key take away that while broad trends may have predictive power over 30 years, specific airplane classes (A380), specific technologies (SST) and specific airport processes (TSA) may change well within those windows.
So what might most predicable over 30 years?
Trends in birth rates and life expectancies change very slowly between generations. Fertility is dropping in the middle and upper middle classes that are the largest consumers of air travel services. Older people are living longer. Of all trends demographics may be the most predictable and durable.
Since is difficult to extract the accumulated wealth of the top 1%, even if income taxation become much more progressive, the top 1% ($10M+ net wealth) will have a great spending advantage for decades to come. We should expect that 1 million Americans will be able to afford premium travel at least occasionally, creating a demand of at least 1 million premium priced round trips a year.
Persistence Of Existing Infrastructure, Aviation Technology, Airplane Designs ...
The current dominant air travel system requires very large and expensive collections of infrastructure with long service lives. Once created, they consume most of available funds to simply maintain. Most airports that can host large aircraft have no room to expand. There are no new large airports seriously proposed in the USA (or Europe) at this time.
The fuel support systems based on carbon based fuels are well established. The addition of support for electrical-battery type aircraft should be of minimal expense, but electrical-battery type aircraft will be essentially short range prop commuter aircraft that will compete directly with self-driving EVs. Hydrogen will likely require a new pipeline-from-source, locals pipelines, cryogenic storage, cryogenic fueling and emergency ops infrastructure. Given that hydrogen based aircraft will still be of limited use in 2050, many existing 2050 airports will not support this option.
My 4 Future State Scenarios:
MY Scenario (1) | Future State Scenario: Economic Demand For Passenger Aviation Services
As with so many offerings in our global market economy specific solutions tend to follow market demand. The rise of more non-stop trips on 2 engine long range jets (with higher prices) has been a trend supplanting lower cost hub based travel. This trend is reflected in the closing of the production line for the ultimate hub centric air aircraft, the A380, as well as it's need for 4 engine operations and upgraded runways and gates. Point to point, even at higher prices, has won the future, especially as growing income inequality rewards the direct flight markets. Those who are far more price sensitive will continue to support the hub systems through large airports, but the profits per passenger will become much less than in the direct flight system.
KEY INPUT 1: Falling Populations, Falling Customer Demand (high predictability)
From a recent NYT article: Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications:
Like an avalanche, the demographic forces — pushing toward more deaths than births — seem to be expanding and accelerating.
The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.
A key impact to aviation demand of this demographic trend is fewer family trips and more retirees in the mix, who are very cost, but not trip time, sensitive. While this could net-net lead to more low end travel, more destinations for retirees will be those that must be paid for (hotels, food, surface transport) and not supported by children. Thus, we could retiree see travel contract as well. Yet, with fewer customer class alternatives the Scars system will organize around these cost sensitive customers, with fewer lower cost hub schedules, and longer TSA lines (to cut costs) that will drive the business traveler toward the direct "Stars" system. From a cost perspective, fewer young workers could force wage increases from airport maintenance to onboard operations, increasing ticket prices, suppressing demand.
Might this demographic shift suddenly change? Probably not. A key complaint by young adults is that it is expensive to have children now, and while government spending programs might address this to a limited extent, this would need to occur at the same time as large increase in retirees and pensioners will drain budgets for decades. In the past the retirees have had more political influence than the young, and with the powerful boomer generation now moving into retirement, there is little reason to expect this to change.
KEY INPUT 2: Income inequality becomes stable or grows (high predictability)
From the World Inequality Lab:
The global top 1% income share could increase from nearly 20% today to more than 24% in 2050, while the global bottom 50% share would fall from 10% to less than 9%.
Changes in technology and autonomy (see scenarios below) may enhance the results of the key trends, but not create or sustain them.
Higher wealth and income customers fly more and pay more for direct flight, comfort, convenience and other amenities.
First, for the middle to upper middle class:
In 2015 those with $80K household income were much more likely to air travel than those with $40K. A UK study show that those with the highest income would fly up to 7 times more often than the lowest. Then factor in business travelers:
Business travelers account for 12% percent of airlines' passengers, but they are typically twice as profitable. In fact, on some flights, business passengers represent 75% of an airline's revenues.
Thus the higher income middle class/business class finances the current system, but what if they start defecting (at least occasionally) to a Stars based system expanded to have lower price options than private jets?
At the very high end Private Jet Operators Are Stealing Passengers from U.S. Airlines:
The pro-jet crowd points to a McKinsey study showing only about 10 percent of people who can afford to fly private actually do. Jet company executives figure anyone with investable income of over $10 million — a considerable sum, to be sure — is ripe for (private jets flights)
Demand for aviation services fall from it's historic highs. Consumer groups ability to afford services diverge, creating an ever more two tiered system. This may be as subtle as re-organization of routes and fares or as dramatic as a partial geographic split between and aging low cost Scars systems and new small private airports system broadening the current private jet offerings, a Stars system.
Income inequality drives the "Stars" System and it's affluent, time and comfort centric customers
In this we see the trend that will define a two tiered system. The top tier is dominated by direct flights often from small airports or specialized facilities at large airports will be seen as the "Stars". These facilities will be premium grade with minimal wait times. The Stars system will be financed by private money, IPOs and SPACs, with little government money. The Stars system will be able to buy the quickest access to airspace and runways as airports will begin to depend on this subsidy to support the existing system.
For most of the "deca-millionaire" (households with over $10 Million in wealth) class the system will be refinement and broadening of the private jet aviation system. Mid-sized jets with point-to-point trips, private space and amenities that now dominate the private jet class of passengers will allow aircraft to mix the very rich with the wealthy. These formally first and business class passengers will no longer need to mix with middle and upper middle class at the airports, in boarding lines, at customs.
The addition of SST speed (low probability) may encourage the grouping of the very rich that dominate the private jet market with the merely wealthy. This could provide the critical mass to build up smaller airports The Boom Aviation model goals offer a good example of this (ref: CNN Travel):
Designed to seat between 65 and 88 people, Overture will focus on over 500 primarily transoceanic routes that will benefit from the aircraft's Mach-2.2 speeds
The world is now approaching 3,000 Billionaires (can buy anything, time, comfort and security are very important), and over 1 M deca-millionaires just in the USA (can splurge on big price tickets, but only occasionally). This is the market that will support the "Stars" aviation options. At the moment there is no reason to believe inequality will be reversed, although higher taxation may start to reduce the growth of inequality.
The "Scars" System and it's fewer, more price sensitive customers
Below the deca-millionaires, which are far less than 1% of the travelling public, we find the upper middle class that is becoming financially squeezed. Higher health care costs and related concerns begin to erode willingness to pay premium. Between 2020 and 2050 the automation that has stagnated the wages of the middle reaches into the professional class as AI and globalization replaces well payed US lawyers, financial professionals, accountants and some in the medical area with lower cost alternatives. Higher property and other taxes and fees erode buying power and ability to buy high end travel.
Alternatives to business travel rob high profit trip demand
The COVID pandemic finally made tele-meeting very common around the developed world, allowing businesses to deeply cut business travel. Although business travel will remain, it is more likely to be rationed to fewer employees and fewer conferences. This will reduce a key source of revenue for the airlines and airports.
Alternative travel systems rob short aviation trip demand
Alternatives to aviation for some distances of travel will likely increase. Autonomous luxury vehicles with a bathroom that have none of the issues of travel to the airport, parking, check in lines, TSA lines, gate waits, and so on, will become a good alternative to 8-10 hour travel radius. More space and a dedicated space for 4 - 6 people will lure many family groups into choosing this over air travel.
In addition some short trips may be banned if train service is available, which is already happening in France. This also serves to re-enforce demand in air travel alterative systems, which may create a feedback loop that makes land travel a better alternative within 2 in-air hours.
Scenario 9 | Technology
90% of operations similar to today, 10% different (high probability)
Even in 2050, airplane technology remains largely as it is today for large passenger liners and transport aircraft, given that it can take 10-20 years to take a new large airplane concept from concept to flight certification. These planes will operate for 20+ years. For example, the 777 family was introduced in 1995 and still is in production. I think we can safely predict that the skies of 2050 will not be dominated by new designs with new fuel. 2050 operations will be dominated by the newer designs that are being produced today.
Changes will come mostly in small and mid-sized designs and fuel choice, here electric and hydrogen based aircraft can gather enough private market funding to build viable products (over 10-20 years).
Conventionally fueled super-sonic (low probability)
A number of small companies are proposing small to medium sized conventionally fueled aircraft for over the ocean travel. This includes: Boom Overture. Although SST does not seem to be a serious consideration of any major aircraft maker at this time, the rise of so much investable wealth in the world suggests that at least a 20-30 passenger variant is likely to be operation in 2050 serving the very elite "Stars" traveler. The recent closure of Aeiron shows that a new small to mid-sized SST will be challenge on many fronts, even in the 2050 time frame. No major airplane manufacturer has serious plans for one. For now, the sheer potential demand from the very wealthy will keep this option alive.
Operations of hydrogen planes (low probability)
Other that using a potentially very sustainable fuel, a hydrogen powered plane may offer extreme designs and performance much more akin to SSTs than conventional aircraft. The hydrogen fuel tank would probably consume 20% or more of the tail of tail of long fuselage, as an under pressure cryogenic fuel needs a big cylindrical container (much like a rocket), and perhaps use a single engine at the tail with the wings merely for control and lift. An interesting potential plane would also incorporate a small LOX tank that could augment low O2 at very high altitudes (that might be high enough to avoid sonic booms). These aircraft, if they ever come into commercial operation, will need advanced materials to mitigate the extreme heating of the skin and engine. Of course the cryogenic fuel could be used for active cooling as well before injection into the engine. "Skipping" above the altitude that can carry sonic booms might reduce skin heating but still allow over land SST service.
SpaceX's Earth Point-To-Point Service (low probability)
The most radical vision for a change in aviation comes from SpaceX, which has suggested (for many years) that the Starship system could provide point-to-point transportation from anywhere to anywhere on Earth with a 1 hour or less flight time. Most trajectories would put the ship into space for a short time, truly earning this as a "Stars" category of travel. It will likely have a "Stars" level of pricing as well. Passengers should expect a few minutes of roller-coaster type high G acceleration as well. Given that Starship (upper stage) has proven it's ability to fly to 10 km and return for a soft landing, this must remain a possibility for a small fraction of the market. The current version of Starship, which is optimized for Mars use, uses Liquid Methane that is good for long term in-space stability. By 2050 this might be replaced for non-Mars use by Liquid Hydrogen which could be carbon-neutral.
Scenario 10 | Autonomy
By 2050 there is a very likelihood of a huge set (10,000s) of LEO satellites providing low latency broadband comms and Enhanced GPS to planes. Already SpaceX has deployed over 1,500 of these 2020 era satellites, and demonstrated 100 Mbps to over 10,000 points. The AF has shown broadband flight capability with Starlink as well.
1) Enhanced GPS
Current Army funded experiments using Starlink satellites as a "GPS-repeater" will create a Enhanced GPS with much stronger signal and much more redundancy. By 2050 the expectation of un-jammable all weather 10 cm system accuracy seems reasonable. This would enable completely automated end-to-end operations.
2) AI "Co-pilot"
By 2050 the AI "Co-pilot" will do most of the flying of large commercial jets. The pilot/engineer will act as the human-in-the-loop to take over in rare situations where the AI "Co-pilot" has issues.
3) LEO Broadband remote flight
The ability to remotely fly an aircraft opens the possibility of pilotless aircraft by providing an emergency backup to an AI "Pilot" .
4) No pilot small plane (the AI "Pilot")
In many ways the challenge of a completely automated air flight is easier than a point to point trip on the road. A combination of the above items (1-3) could lower the cost of small jet operations and remove pilot work hour constrains to system scheduling.
Scenario 11 | Sustainability
While electrification of ground transportation is likely to be 50% by 2050, electrification of air travel is much more challenging. While small and regional electric-battery planes have high potential, the need to use props over jets will limit their effective range. While electric jets are theoretically possible, they are much less likely than prop aircraft. The phase out of coal and natural gas to produce electricity, combined with EV ground transport should allow the aviation industry to retain the use of it's current fuel mix while meeting national goals for CO2 reduction. But there will still be political and market pressure to reduce this.
Thus, since today's jet fuel will likely be used in the future, atmospheric carbon capture to create jet (or any carbon based fuel) as form of offsetting the CO2 emissions of the aviation industry is seen a the most promising way to make the aviation industry carbon neutral. Elon Musk has funded a prize of $100M for a solution that can extract CO2 from the atmosphere in a more efficient way than the Sabatier process that is intended for Liquid Methane production on Mars.
Rise of electric small planes (moderate probability)
Small to regional sized electric-battery planes should be within reach of battery technology by 2030, and well established by 2050. Airports will need very high voltage charging that even beyond the expectations for the electrified trucking industry, where the Tesla Semi is a good example. Many proposed small flying taxis will rely on this.
Airports host large solar farms (moderate probability)
Many airports have significant empty land, parking areas and flat topped buildings that would be ideal for the placement of solar panels. Airports could easily become net power producers, creating a revenue stream for operations.
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