Screen shot of montage of LAX departures on a fine day
Screen shot of montage of LAX departures on a fine day

No one ever really sees the future, but the issues for air transport this coming year are easy to pick.

They include the risks that regular fliers will decide that less flying is a good thing, as well as the increasingly visible need to better train more pilots to deal with retirements even if demand for more services exceeds, equals or misses the various predictions made by those brave enough to think they know what will happen over the coming 12 months.

For the past 25 years deregulation, and rising spending power, have created growth in demands for transport mobility just about everywhere on the planet that exceeds the growth in supporting infrastructure and human skills. It’s not just planes, but trains, cars and shipping that come under pressure that suits the needs of various societies and the different geographical and demographic realities that apply to them.

Many of those predictions said that the second half of this decade would reach crisis points in key places. We are now entering that place.

In this part of the world, Brisbane’s second long parallel runway and Sydney’s second airport are needed this year, not in the early to mid 2020s. But needed not by their potential owners, but those of us who fly, or suffer Sydney commuter issues caused by the reliance of the entire Sydney basin on one space constrained airport in its east.

Among the many reasons they aren’t ready this year is the not unreasonable situation that their broader benefits to the economies of Queensland and New South Wales wouldn’t directly nor immediately reward the private capital that would be invested in them, unless, somehow, those investors also owned ancillary investments in real estate, manufacturing, and other services that will benefit from improved air links.

What worked for the great American railroad building enterprises of the 19th century just doesn’t cut it, for a host of reasons in the 21st century. But they do work, to oversimplify the situation, in China, where those lives that block the ambitions of central planning and state supported capital, get removed, one way or the other.

There are states where a central economic planning tradition strongly influences infrastructure and industry investment outcomes. The results can be impressive, yet also cruel, ugly, and unjust. In 2016 our often inefficient and confused and fragmented policy settings on infrastructure might hopefully, lurch towards some much needed reforms, but without destroying parts of who and what we are.

To choose an issue much larger than aviation, do we want food from our finest farmlands for centuries to come, or 20 years of questionable profits for offshore owners from a dying fossil fuel industry lurching toward technological as well as investor obsolescence?

For airlines, a 2016 issue is whether people who currently fly ‘a lot’ will continue to do so with as much frequency? It’s a bit like the very real question as to whether people who use social media a lot, to the extent that they can scarcely scratch themselves without tweeting it to others, will continue to share their real and fantasy personas with those who live in walled gardens looking out through tiny screen sized windows.

What if people decide to fly less, and share less of themselves on-line? Sleep more in their own beds, instead of what is always just a bunk in the sky. Talk to people face to face, rather than push junk talk to a host of others, where everyone seems to be sending, yet not receiving.

Those who fly so much that they are platinum this or super ivory diamond inlaid whatever in some other scheme, are harming their health and their relationships. They don’t do this for fun, and they do truly deserve to be recognized and rewarded by their chosen airlines. Flying for many is a sacrifice of family and good times for longer term goals.

But do the airlines give a damn anymore, and are the earn/burn value and ‘status’ equations good enough to hold the attention of regular frequent flyers for another year, if they actually hold their attention now?

Most of my circle of much flown family and friends have given up caring what the airlines or card companies actually say or do, and would much rather not be pestered with messages like ‘you have three days in which to save 135,000 points that will expire’. Flying has become a necessary chore, and courtesy and efficiency and a reasonable expectation that you won’t actually be killed by some idiot executive deciding to cut this or that corner in operational procedures are prime considerations, rather than the risk of no longer being a ‘platinum’.

This loss of the ‘magic’ of flying has of course been apparent, and been well written up, since at least the late 90s. It’s just getting more pressing in 2016 than ever.

There isn’t a scheduled airline on the planet that flies a premium fare bed that is remotely as spacious or comfortable as those in the home of any Plane Talking reader.

Nor is there a business class suite of any geometry that is as well appointed, and roomy, as the lounge chairs in our homes, nor is there a premium lounge anywhere on earth that is likely to offer the same amenity, privacy, and environmental settings as our own homes and apartments.

The airlines almost certainly understand that if they are selling to or above a certain level of professional salary or personal wealth, the potential ‘guest’ is going to react to a diminution of rewards or in flight amenity by flying less, or by deciding to hack the ‘privations’ of premium or discount economy, or arrange for other less senior colleagues to do the flying instead.

In this sense 2016 could become the year of ‘too much of an increasingly less than good thing’ as the full service product is redefined to be closer to purgatory, and the outer circle of hell in low cost carriers comes with affordable extras to deliver superior seat pitch, and real food on a full sized tray table.

The customers and ‘guests’ might start to ask, ‘What is going on?’ Which for our airlines could make this a ‘Year of living dangerously.’

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