The Airlines' Greatest Future Competition: The Speed of Light

We've all seen pictures of the old wall-mounted, wooden-box crank telephones from the early part of the 20th century. The "transmitter" was mounted on the box -- the earpiece you had to hold against your ear separately -- and after cranking the thing to ring a bell at the operator's switchboard somewhere in town, you could be plugged directly into someone else's line and, hopefully, have them answer the bell you were manually (electrically) ringing at the other end.

The sound was little better than using two tin cans connected by a cord, but with a certain amount of effort and often a bit of yelling (so that the entire south 40 could hear every word of your end of the conversation), actual communication could occur.

Contrast that to the tiny cell phone and headset that enables you to walk down the street looking like you're talking to yourself -- today a common sight that yesterday could easily have landed you in psychiatric evaluation.

Today's phones -- landline or cellular -- have enabled transparent communication. In other words, we don't spend the conversation thinking about the technology involved nor, in most cases, having difficulty hearing each other. The medium has become invisible, and the result is two minds communicating orally as effectively as humans can.

Now, hold it. This column is about transportation and flying, so why am I on about phones?

Because we're in the crank telephone stage of a thing loosely referred to as teleconferencing, and when it matures to the status of transparency -- when people can sit in two different parts of the planet and see and hear each other with the same degree of transparency we've achieved with voice communications -- two very large challenges to commercial aviation will begin to roll across the industry like an economic hurricane -- a change driven first by convenience, and then by cost.

Front-line businessmen and women will drive the initial wave of this economic tsunami. We're talking the average so-called "road warriors" (I'm also a card-carrying member of that millions-strong club) who have to haul their bodies physically to and from meetings, conventions, sales pitches, site inspections and a withering list of other personal appearances. This is road time on which American businesses currently spend between $400 and $600 per person per day. Senior airline executives for the last 10 years have blithely argued away this potential impact -- often with a derisive snort -- on the grounds that people will always have to meet person to person. But for the airlines that's a dangerous and false sense of security based on their archaic dependence on the business traveler to provide the majority of their currently scarce profits.

It's true that international business involving cross-cultural human contact will always tend to require more in-person travel. But after that initial personal contact bond has been established, the mere press of business will call into question the sanity of spending three days on the road to get back to the same people when the same meeting could be done in a teleconferencing environment costing no more than an hour of valuable time.

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