Into the future with air travel dystopia

Recently I’ve been thinking about air travel, dystopia, and the future.

Yes, it’s natural for anyone flying in the United States* to think of dystopia, given our system’s combination of misanthropic service, grim airports, overcrowding, a military-like mix of rushing and delays, escalating surveillance, and overall miasma of despair and doom.  This is a logical, even organic insight.  Yet I’d like to use it to look ahead as well.

For starters, last week I “enjoyed” a trip on United Basic Economy.  If you’re new to the concept, it’s like economy, except with less charm.  As in:

  • No carry-on luggage.  One “personal item” is permitted alone.
  • No choice in seating.  You sit where they put you.
  • No upgrades or refunds.
  • No gate checking for luggage.
  • You get seated last, meaning you are the easiest to bump.

For a bonus, when I checked into the ticket counter at the Burlington Airport an agent told me I could carry a couple of bags after all. When I reached the departure gate the agent there disagreed, and insisted on charging me double to check my duffel and CPAP bags: $110 US for a couple of smallish bags.

I’m morbidly fascinated by the idea of Basic Economy.  If it’s aimed at poorer travelers, how is United expecting to make any money off of them?  If it’s aimed at day trippers (say, flying to another city for a meeting in the morning, then flying back, and hence not requiring luggage) wouldn’t those travelers resent the bad treatment?  Surely reducing the amount of carry on luggage isn’t that large a concern?

Maybe I’m looking at Basic Economy the wrong way.  Perhaps it’s not a niche marketing effort, but a trial for what a large swath of economy seating might become: degraded, more tightly controlled.  It’s a preview of things to come.  Then we can pay more to avoid it – say, there’s a business model!

When I returned from this trip, an online friend pointed me to a hilarious Delta paid ad in the New York Times, entitled “WELCOME TO THE AIRPORT OF THE FUTURE!”  It’s an enthusiastic celebration of new technologies applied to the Delta air travel experience, and worth looking at in some detail.

The whole thing is written in the second person present tense.  “You are doing this,” “You enjoy that”, and so on.  It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure set in Franz Kafka International Airport.It’s hard to read any of these assertions without laughing.  For example, “Airport lobbies are designed with beauty and functionality in mind, reducing congestion while creating a calm and welcoming environment.” (bold in original) Ahahahaha!  Sorry, I just spent quality time in the Orlando and Philadelphia airports.

Delta airport of the future

The hortatory voice of Delta goes on:

Once at the gate you can access Wi-Fi and order food and drink while you wait for a flight. Roaming gate agents are available to assist you with any questions.

After seamlessly self-boarding, passengers can experience free entertainment and messaging, from the tarmac to 30,000 feet…

With high-speed internet and access to your entertainment options, you can stay occupied or keep working from takeoff to landing.

As opposed to the high charges and low speeds we now enjoy, during the short time we’re allowed to actually try and use airplane WiFi.

Did you catch the bit about “seamless self-boarding”?  I’m trying to imagine the many ways this can go badly, even worse than the clotted cattle drive boarding now is.  Will seamless self-boarding stop the people whose baggage weighs more than they do, or the folks who relish talking with each other or on phones while holding up the fuming line?

Delta also onboards some more surveillance, with a biometric slant:

Biometric-based self-service bag-drop stations could process twice as many customers per hour, meaning one less long line to worry about.

RFID and real-time bag-tracking technologies ensure the location of your luggage is always accessible and tracked with a 99.9% success rate…

Biometric scanning allows you to speed through security lines without worrying about missing your flight…

Self-boarding with Delta’s biometric boarding-pass experience helps passengers get settled quickly. With less congestion and confusion, you can focus on the things that really matter — like work, games or getting some shut-eye.

So our bags and bodies will be tagged and tracked, fulfilling the passenger-as-livestock experience of today.  Will this include targeted advertising and corporate messages?  Shall we be tracked in airplane bathrooms and airport restaurants?  Who will safeguard this data?  Can passengers access it?  Oh, the many ways this can go wrong.

I’m also very curious as to the arrangement Delta has in mind with TSA which will let us “speed through security lines”.

The paid ad is a nice example of technological solutionism, focusing narrowly on tech to solve problems without using any other approaches (business strategy, policy, etc).  Federal policy, changing roles for gate agents, better food options, and new business models do not appear.  Instead, biometrics and WiFi alone will solve today’s air travel problems.

Taken together, Delta and United’s Basic Economy sketch out a basic dystopia.  We are surveilled, tracked, organized like soldiers or terrorists (to be fair, some of us are the former, and a handful the latter).  It’s a way of bringing the war on terror home, deploying its strategies on the air traveler.  Our choices are fewer, our exposure to abuse greater.  The human enforcers of this order disappear behind technology and our new self-boarding, self-monitoring practices.

We can extend this into the future.  First, they do describe a plausible form of air travel in the United States.  Travelers already accept a major dose of intrusion and dehumanization through TSA and security theater without demur, so it’s possible we’d submit to even more oppressive forms.  We’re used to discomfort of all sorts, so we could probably take some more.  And we already take up a great deal of functions previously provided by businesses, from arranging our flights to managing bank transactions; loading us up with boarding duties isn’t too great a stretch.  Some airlines are already considering abolishing seating altogether.

Airports could become less unpleasant in all kinds of ways, but I suspect we’ll see little of that in reality.  Instead we’ll get more bad food, more unpleasant seating, more crowding, and fewer power outlets, especially as airport administration is usually invisible, and hence unavailable to our protests and demands.  Yet Delta’s line about “beauty and functionality” could well point to both.  Consider, for example, this Dubai airport security project:

Travellers departing from Dubai will no longer need to pass through any sort of security clearance counter or e-gate, they will simply walk through a virtual aquarium tunnel that will scan their face or iris using hidden cameras while they’re in motion. The tunnel, which will display high-quality images of an aquarium, will be equipped with about 80 cameras set up in every corner and the idea came about after 18 months of brainstorming.

“Please look at the lovely fishies, not the cameras!”  Beauty and surveillance can combine effectively, it seems.  The former might make us less grump and more amenable to the latter.

If we dislike this idea, we remain free to travel by car, train, or bus, of course, as ever.  But airlines could also benefit from increasing economic inequality and polarization.  A precarious middle class and various professionals might prefer to pay their way out of dystopia, either plumping for better tickets or getting their employers to nudge them out of Terror Economy or Kafka Koach.  Higher ticket prices are where the airlines can really make money.  Let those who can avoid the hoi polloi and their awful experiences.  Indeed, we could expect some new passenger classes aimed at this group: Creative Class Seating, say, or Plutocratic Assistant Section.  Meanwhile, the masses can pay tasty fees for luggage, internet access, bad food, or the privilege of sitting down.

Second, this kind of dystopia lite might not be restricted to air travel.  We’ve seen such surveillance and self-monitoring across American society, from professionals drivers tracked on their way to schools closely tracking student movements in knowledge and space; again, we could well accept more, especially if accompanied by a modicum of beauty or pleasantry.  This is where internet access and especially VR can play a role, giving us soothing distractions (cat videos! games! porn!) to make the dystopian sting more bearable.   And the multi-tier pricing lets us modulate that pain while expressing our economic stratification.  Think of this as an organizational principle for societies, nations, or businesses.

How plausible is this future as airport?  Could we stand it?

*I don’t want to be that traveler who sneers at domestic travel to boast about their foreign exploits, but the majority of trips I’ve taken outside the US have been better than those within.  I have yet to experience an airport or plane worse than those America has to offer.

(thanks to Christel Broady)

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3 Responses to Into the future with air travel dystopia

  1. LISA STEPHENS says:

    I actually think the Dubai idea is pretty utilitarian. With Apple’s iPhone X, I suspect a barrier has been crossed with adoption of mainstream facial recognition (most people don’t realize how broadly these technologies are already in place). But I feel your pain, and I know you travel a LOT!

  2. Sam says:

    Travellers of future wont be going anywhere unless shakled to seats nonluxury at all

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