Glass-walled planes. Robot-staffed hotels. Ultra-long-haul flights travelling at supersonic speeds. And, of course, that final frontier: space. Predictions for the future of travel are some of the most colourful in the business, but how do we work out what’s a real possibility, and what’s supersonic pie in the sky?
Travel will have to change by necessity, of course — and that will largely be led by global warming. The destinations we want to visit will change — sometimes drastically — and with carbon emissions needing to be stemmed, it’s highly likely legislation will be introduced that will mean aviation as we know it is no longer sustainable. What’s more, an ever-increasing demand for travel will come up against a finite number of slots and runways at hub airports.
To sort the wheat of likelihood from the chaff of speculation, we asked experts across major sectors of the industry how they think we’ll be travelling in 20 years’ time. A lot will change, it turns out — though it may not be as glamorous as you were hoping.
Up in the air
From glass-fronted, battery-powered planes to the death of the dreaded middle seats, people have high hopes for the future of flying. But according to Jon Ostrower, editor-in-chief of aviation website The Air Current, the reality is less radical.
“The basic shape of a plane cabin hasn’t ever changed”, says Ostrower. “Implementation of big changes is hard and extremely costly. We’re far more likely to see planes with no pilots before we see glass walls.”
Yes, with aviation booming and pilot numbers dropping, captain-free planes will become a reality within the next 20-40 years, he says. We can expect it first in cargo aircraft to help build “societal acceptance”.
By then, airport transfers will likely be in self-driving cars, too, and airports will be employing more AI (artificial intelligence)
— customer service robots already exist at Munich and Bologna airports, and their capabilities will increase with new technology.
So if not Jetsons-style interiors, what can we expect on board? The bad news is that, seatwise, Ostrower expects things to be even more of a squeeze, due to growing demand. The good news: digital customisation will transform the flying experience. Think high-speed in-flight wi-fi, total connectivity between seat screens and our devices, biometric onboard payment, and customised inflight entertainment, allowing you to pre-select what you want to watch. “Customisation will become the differentiator between airlines,” he says. “A lot of it will be to distract us while we’re getting squished.”
Biometrics looks likely to play a much bigger role — and not just in making payments. In 20 years, you could be using your fingerprint as your passport — EasyJet launched a biometric boarding trial at Gatwick last year, so the wheels are already in motion.
The biggest aviation sea-change, though, will be the growth of secondary airports, says Ostrower. With finite slots at major hubs, airlines will start routes between smaller cities. By 2040, you could be flying direct from Sheffield to Xi’an or Bristol to Boulder. Smaller, more efficient planes will be used on these routes. In contrast, short-haul flights between bigger cities will deploy larger planes to cope with ever-growing demand.
Ultimately, though, everything depends on consumer appetite, and whether travellers are prepared to pay extra for privileges. Ultra-long haul looks set to mushroom — Qantas hopes to have a direct London-Sydney route by 2022 — but Ostrower says it all depends on whether passengers will want to sit on a plane for 20-plus hours, and pay a premium for the experience.
Where do we go?
As a direct result of climate change, our traditional travel habits will have entirely changed by 2040, according to Justin Francis, CEO of online travel agency Responsible Travel. For starters, forget the Costa del Sol for the school holidays — southern Europe will be too hot in peak season. Instead, Scandinavia and North America will become our summer favourites, he expects.
Your Christmas holidays will change, too. Diminishing snow in the Alps means skiers will head north to Scandinavia, Francis predicts. And when it comes to winter sun, the Caribbean hurricane season will become more unpredictable with global warming. “People won’t take the risk,” he says. “The Caribbean and the Alps will be the big losers.”
Don’t expect to see Venice, Dubrovnik or Barcelona on 2040 bucket lists either. “Destinations suffering from overtourism will definitely see a reduced footprint,” says Jean-François Ferret, CEO of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Instead, current second- and third-tier destinations will be all the rage — Ferret cites the lesser-known Cycladic islands, including Kea, Kythnos and Paros, as potential ‘new’ Santorinis.
We can also expect to pay a tourist tax wherever we go — most cities in Italy already implement this for overnight guests, and Bath and Edinburgh are considering plans to introduce the measure too. Fragile destinations may even cap numbers — either in the form of a prohibitively costly tax — as Bhutan currently does, charging at least $250 (£192) per visitor per day, or by allotting tickets in advance, whether by price, lottery or some other factor.
As for divers, they can expect to see coral reefs disappearing by the end of the century, while safari-goers will get fewer animal sightings — drought means animals will migrate, abandoning the famous national parks.
A hotel staffed by robots? It’s already happened in Japan’s Henn na Hotel, but don’t expect it to be the future, says Juliana Shallcross, tech correspondent for Hotels magazine. “Robots will pick up the slack in the form of concierge, room service and housekeeping”, she says. “But hotels still pride themselves on human interaction.”
Ferret, of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, argues that tech could dehumanise the relationship with the guest if not used correctly. “What excites me more is what AI can bring through the use of data to create a more personalised journey,” he says. Chains are already collecting customer data, right from the moment they start searching for a hotel, notes Shallcross. “Personalisation will get better. And the better hotels can get at predicting what a guest wants, the better the stay should be.”
The trend towards design rather than designer looks set to continue, making stylish digs more affordable. Shallcross predicts big brands will continue to create spin-offs masquerading as independent hotels, in the same vein as Hilton’s Curio Collection of individually named boutique properties, and Marriott’s Autograph Collection of luxury grande dames, which rarely mentions the word ‘Marriott’. And the rise of Airbnb could mean changes to traditional room configurations, she says: “I’d like to see hotels creating affordable room options that work for families and other groups.”
As for amenities, cable TV and on-demand entertainment are already on the way out; expect rooms to connect with your smartphone more and more, from streaming entertainment to communicating with staff and even opening the door.
Yet, we won’t be seeing dramatic changes in the world of accommodation. “There isn’t one game-changing device that I can see right now that will elevate the hotel experience,” says Shallcross. “Too much technology — or tech that guests aren’t comfortable using — could make things worse. That’s why I still think free and fast wi-fi will be all guests want for a long time to come.”
Space and supersonic
Much has been made of the return of supersonic travel, but our experts say you’re more likely to see space tourism take off than fly on Concorde’s successor. Designing any new plane is a cash drain, says The Air Current’s Ostrower, so although there are heavily touted plans in the works, he doubts they’ll come to fruition. Supersonic’s noise pollution and increased carbon emissions could also sound its death knell.
Space travel, however, is already on the cards. For example, Elon Musk plans to send his Big Falcon Rocket to the Moon by 2023, and has mooted trips to Mars. Meanwhile, Richard Branson’s team at Virgin Galactic are at test flight stage. Ostrower reckons full-on space tourism is “not far” off.
“We already have the technology for space travel,” says aviation journalist and space enthusiast Cynthia Drescher, noting that the programmes needed to run a NASA Apollo mission could now be housed on a smartphone app. “It’s the regulatory demands and desire for fuel efficiency that will push the need for further innovation for years — or even decades.”
And while outer space, in our lifetime, may be for the super-rich only — Virgin Galactic is expected to charge £175,000 per flight
— Ostrower reckons it will eventually become affordable. “Air travel was exclusively for the wealthy for the first 60 years,” he says. “We’ll get there, but it’s going to start with frivolous joyrides.”
Environmentally friendly flying is already in the offing — not least because carbon efficiency is an economic necessity. Virgin Atlantic is already working on a fuel blend that’s 50% recycled, while Norwegian has unveiled highly accurate weather forecast technology that allows pilots to optimise flight paths for fuel efficiency. Boeing and Airbus are working on hybrid planes, and Norway as a country has pledged that all flights of under 90 minutes should be electric by 2040.
However, advancement in aviation comes down to technology, says The Air Current’s Ostrower. “Batteries today aren’t capable of generating the power to get a 737 off the ground, let alone a long-range aircraft.” But, he adds, we’re “on the cusp” of getting the tech right, and predicts small electric aircraft will be in business within a decade.
Responsible Travel’s Francis believes regulations will be a key driver of progress — currently, 80% of carbon emissions from a holiday are from the flight. “I think there will be a clampdown on emissions, and transport will bear the brunt,” he says. “Fuel will be taxed, and that’ll push us to get the technology for electric planes.” Cruise ships, which burn fuel that on land would be deemed toxic, will be forced to clean up their act, too.
The way we travel
“There’s been a fundamental change in the last 100 years,” says Responsible Travel’s Francis. “Travel has always been about experience-seeking; now it’s becoming about building your personal brand.”
However, Francis predicts a backlash against the social media-led travel industry over the next 20 years. “At some point, we’ll see value put back on experiences,” he says.
Smartphones have revolutionised the way we travel, but they don’t allow us to disconnect in the way we used to when we went abroad. “We don’t really leave home behind, and that means we never fully travel,” says Francis. We can expect off-grid holidays to become more popular as a reaction. The same goes for destinations that are all about the views, rather than sights to tick off.
“We’re already seeing a desire for more landscape,” says Small Luxury Hotels of the World’s Ferret. “Hotels are being created in destinations that aren’t famous for anything at all, but have unique, couldn’t-be-anywhere-else views.”
By 2040, the chances are we’ll be so much more attuned to how our travel affects the wider world, that the lines between what is and isn’t acceptable will be crystal clear. “You might talk about the way you travelled to your destination the way you now talk about being vegan, or having a Tesla car,” says Francis. The same goes for activities, especially animal-related ones, so forget riding elephants, for example. And, Francis adds, although virtual reality has the potential to bring ancient sites to life, it won’t replace physical travel.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)