The 'Future' of Airline Travel

A typical customer of the future is on his communication device, trying to change a plane reservation.

"Hello, Mr. Anderson. Thank you for choosing OneWorld 2011 Airlines. How can I help you this evening?" The online digital customer service rep's voice is slightly robotic, but alluring.

"Well," Mr. Anderson says, staring at the pixel-woman on the screen in front of him. "I need to change my flight from Wednesday to Friday."

"Very good, Mr. Anderson," the digi-rep says. "Report to the Rollerball court at 0300 hours. If you are successful in utilizing this quasi-futuristic bloodsport to hurl your carry-on bag past the android attendants and into the correct bin, and you pay the change fee of $550, we'll be happy to book you on that Friday flight."

Is this the future? With oil prices on the rise, airlines adding new fees on what seems like a daily basis and dropping customer service scores, insiders, experts and average travelers have begun to prognosticate, trying to read the "signs" to see where all this is heading.

I have to admit that future-of-air-travel-type questions always bring out the movie buff in me. "Rollerball" came instantly to mind; then, after seeing a news segment on the airlines called "Doomsday Oil Scenario," I immediately envisioned a "Mad Max" situation where fuel was the last surviving currency, and we all started wearing spiked football pads.

Of course, things aren't quite that bleak yet, but we are starting to glimpse trends that could significantly alter the way we fly in the not-too-distant-future. I thought it might be fun to take a look at six possible scenarios. Some are truly Hollywood-worthy, but others aren't as far-out as you might think …

1. Air Travel: Rich People Only

With the Delta-Northwest merger, the recent alliance between Continental and United and more potential mergers on the horizon, we're seeing a reduction in the number of major carriers. Perhaps we're moving toward the "single airline" domestic market that some futurists predict.

However, even if we wind up with more than one airline, past mergers have meant reduced competition, reduced routes and higher ticket prices. Couple this with rising fuel surcharges, taxes and fees, and we could be staring at air travel costs that are simply out of reach for all but a few. While this "futuristic" scenario is alarming, it's actually a throwback to an earlier era, when commercial air travel was the domain of the wealthy.

Now, if we could just get airlines to treat customers as royally as they did back then, that would be something.

2. The Vacuum Bag Carry-On

As fees for checking even a single bag become the norm, the cost of transporting your luggage will continue to rise. Travelers will be forced to carry on as much as they possibly can while still adhering to "maximum carry-on bag" rules.

To do this, they will turn to -- the vacuum bag. You know, those sucking devices that are advertised on late-night TV, allowing you to store 300 sweaters under your bed. Vacuum bags will allow you to carry on all you want and leave the checked-bag fees to those unfortunate few who cling to the inefficient bags of yore.

Plus, the vacuum bags are clear, so that might speed things up at the security lines.

3. Nonhuman Customer Service

Ask anyone who's called an airline lately: It's getting harder and harder to speak with a real, live person. Even when yelling "agent" into the phone, you can still end up on hold for an hour.

Along with less-than efficient call centers, we already have kiosk check-in, barcode boarding passes for our cell phones, and Alaska Airlines' online customer service rep, Jenn, who answers all of your questions in a voice that is only slightly robotic. It's not that big of a leap from here to a completely digital customer service experience.

4. Virgin Mars

Sir Richard's Virgin Galactic is set to begin suborbital flight in '09, so I can only assume he's already setting his sights on the Red Planet.

Think "Total Recall" but with more Branson and fewer chase scenes.

5. Dreamliner Delivered

After nearly half a decade of delays, the large, fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner will finally embark on its maiden voyage. Well, maybe.

6. The 'Stay-cation'

I don't know exactly who coined the phrase "stay-cation" (as in, stay home for your vacation) but it's getting a lot of buzz these days. Some predict that in the future, all our breaks will be "stay-cations," as air travel will be out of reach to all but the rich (see No.1).

Well, I say "No!" to the "stay-cation" scenario.

Sure, it's easy to panic in the face of the current air travel situation. And it's not surprising that people predict things will only get worse as we move forward. However, as a famous movie hero once said, "Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future." ("Star War's" Yoda, of course).

But while fuel prices look as though they'll never stop rising, a stronger dollar and a new administration -- regardless of which one -- and maybe even stricter rules governing the trade of oil futures could return fuel prices to a more realistic level. And many analysts believe oil should realistically cost only about $60 a barrel at this time. It's also possible that a stronger economy could increase the average American's spending power, making higher airfares seem not quite as high.

So even as the pundits and pols predict a future of gloom and doom, it's important to realize that right now -- in the present -- you can still find good deals on airfare, and who knows, maybe we'll even get to enjoy a smooth, comfortable air travel experience (I said "maybe").

It's possible this will be the case for the next five, 10 or 20 years -- although, you might want to brush up on your Rollerball skills -- just in case.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site offers consumers free, new-generation software combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.