The evolution of air travel

Air transport is a mass industry. Every year, more and more people worldwide travel by plane, both domestically and internationally.
Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of IATA.
Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of IATA.

Air transport is a mass industry. Every year, more and more people worldwide travel by plane, both domestically and internationally.

In 2007, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released forecasts projecting that in 2011 the air transport industry will handle no less than 2.75 billion passengers. The industry now accounts for an incredible US$3.5 trillion in economic activity.

Much of this is down to the explosion in recent decades of low-cost airlines, which has brought air travel within reach of ordinary people.

Airlines, such as Easyjet and Ryanair operating in Europe, offer a ‘no-frills’ service at the cheapest fares. When these companies were first set up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s the philosophy was straightforward: in order to access the potential mass market for air travel, the price of a standard fare had to be lowered.

In this spirit, the companies stripped the product – flying people from A to B – to its bare essentials, i.e. the flight. “Away with meals in the air! Away with customer care!

Away with check-in desks manned by personnel!” they cried zealously, as they lopped off yet another costly and superfluous area of service. Then they crammed as many seats as possible into the cabins in order to maximize their profit margin per flight.

The result has been a surge in cheap airlines all trying to undercut one another by cutting back on expendable services and shaving fractions off their costs.

Between them, Ryanair and Easyjet alone carried over 100 million passengers to destinations across Europe and North Africa in 2008. But how did we get here?

The history of aviation is (surprisingly) quite interesting. It can all be brought back to the Ancient Greeks – their myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus fashioning wings of feathers and wax and flying free of their prison foretold the lengths to which people would go in centuries to come in order to achieve man’s greatest dream: flight.

And the tragedy of Icarus’ death as he flew too close to the sun, which melted the wax in his wings and sent him tumbling into the sea, prophesied the fall of many courageous men and women in their quest to achieve that ancient dream.

After centuries of piecemeal advances including hot-air balloons and over-sized kites, the Wright brothers came up with what is widely accredited with being the first modern aircraft in December 1903.

A decade later, the FirstWorld War stimulated a new wave of innovation which saw aircraft being used for reconnaissance, artillery spotting and even attacks against ground positions.

In between the wars, great leaps were made in the field of aviation, such as Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in The Spirit of St. Louis in 1927. His flight captured the world’s imagination – that once unattainable dream had now become a reality.

However, it was only in the wake of World War 2 that the commercial potential of aviation was seized upon. Many towns and cities had airports, which had been used for military purposes and were now sold off to companies.

Men and women who had served as pilots in the air forces now became pilots of commercial planes hired by commercial airlines.

By the 1950s, huge jet airliners such as the Boeing 707, with pressurized and heated cabins, were circling the globe carrying passengers across vast oceans and over impassable mountains.

Although the price still meant that air travel was a luxury enjoyed by the rich, modern aviation had been born. Since then, innovation has continued, making air travel more efficient, more comfortable, faster and safer. It has also become cheaper and more affordable for the average person.

Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO stated, “The numbers clearly show that the world wants to fly. And it also needs to fly. Air transport is critical to the fabric of the global economy.”

He also linked air travel to development – “[it plays] a critical role in wealth generation and poverty reduction.”

Gerald Zirimwabagabo, CEO of Rwandair, explained how air travel has contributed to growth in the Rwandan economy – “Businesses have definitely benefited. Rwanda is a land-locked country and roads into the country are normally poor. Therefore it is vital that we have a good air transport industry.”

“International businesspeople have very little time, so for them the difference between being able to fly to Kampala and come back in a day, and having to spend the best part of two days traveling on roads, is significant,” he pointed out.

“The fact that our airport now operates 24-hours has also given people more flexibility.”

Zirimwabagabo also identified tourism as another sector which has benefited from air travel.

“Tourism is increasingly becoming a major sector in our economy. Tourists want to spend their time in the country, they don’t want to spend days traveling. With our airline flying internationally, and with good links to the rest of the region, we are encouraging more and more people to visit Rwanda.”

Air travel stands as one of the greatest achievements of the ingenuity and innovativeness of mankind. For centuries it remained an impossible dream – physicist Lord Kelvin declared in 1892, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

Yet man’s incredible obstinacy, bordering on irrationality, his wonderful ability to continue striving after a dream in spite of its implausibility has brought about what has to be one of mankind’s greatest creations.

The industry has had a huge impact on the world we live in. It has revolutionized business and brought about that modern phenomenon of globalization.

This is because it has made the world so much smaller – we can now go from Europe to Australia in less than a day, from Nairobi to New York in a matter of hours. Geographer Peter Haggett states, “Most of the world’s cities are now within 36 hours of each other.”

Whereas before, intercontinental travel seemed a mammoth ordeal spanning many days, we now see it as a short trip. We laugh at the Atlantic, we mock the puddle that is the Pacific and we smirk as we hop over the top of the snowy Alps.

The writer is a British intern at The New Times

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