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Air Travel

Ideas for air travel and how to really run an airline

Fixing the sad state of in-flight entertainment (your own or the airline's)

When Southwest started using tablets for in-flight entertainment, I lauded it. Everybody has been baffled by just how incredibly poor most in-flight video systems are. They tend to be very slow, with poor interfaces and low resolution screens. Even today it's common to face a small widescreen that takes a widescreen film, letterboxes it and then pillarboxes it, with only an option to stretch it and make it look wrong. All this driven by a very large box in somebody's footwell.

Let me be a bit late for the plane, occasionally.

One of air travel's great curses is that you have to leave for the airport a long time before your flight. Airlines routinely "recommend" you be there 2 or 3 hours ahead, and airport ride companies often take it to heart and want to pick you up many hours before even short flights. The curse is strongest on short flights, where you can easily spend as much as twice the time getting to the flight as you spend in the air.

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Sell me cheap, flexible tickets if I'm flexible too

Dave Barry once wrote that there is a federal law that no two people on a plane can pay the same price for their seat. Airlines use complex systems to manage ticket prices, constantly changing them based on expected demand and competition, and with over a dozen fare classes with different rules.

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I was a robot for 3 days in London

In August, I attended the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in London. I did it while in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho by means of a remote Telepresence Robot(*). The WorldCon is half conference, half party, and I was fully involved -- telepresent there for around 10 hours a day for 3 days, attending sessions, asking questions, going to parties. Back in Idaho I was speaking at a local robotics conference, but I also attended a meeting back at the office using an identical device while I was there.

Near-perfect virtual reality of recent times and tourism

Recently I tried Facebook/Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype. It has more resolution (I will guess 1280 x 1600 per eye or similar) and runs at 90 frames/second. It also has better head tracking, so you can walk around a small space with some realism -- but only a very small space. Still, it was much more impressive than the DK2 and a sign of where things are going. I could still see a faint screen door, they were annoyed that I could see it.

Hotel rooms and temporary apartments need to adapt better for the digital nomad

I've been on the road for the last month, and there's more to come. Right now I'm in Amsterdam for a few hours, to be followed by a few events in London, then on to New York for Singularity U's Exponential Finance conference, followed by the opening of our Singularity University Graduate Studies Program for 2014.

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Can they make a better black box pinger?

I wrote earlier on how we might make it easier to find a lost jet and this included the proposal that the pingers in the black boxes follow a schedule of slowing down their pings to make their batteries last much longer.

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Getting rid of lines at airport security

Why are there lines at airport security? I mean, we know why the lines form, when passenger load exceeds the capacity, with the bottleneck usually being the X-ray machines. The question is why this imbalance is allowed to happen?

The variable wait at airport security levies a high cost, because passengers must assume it will be long, just in case it is. That means every passenger gets there 15 or more minutes earlier than they would need to, even if there is no wait. Web sites listing wait times can help, but they can change quickly.

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Making sea crashes easier to find

We've all learned a lot about what can and can't be done from the tragic story of MH 370, as well as the Air France flight lost over the Atlantic. Of course, nobody expected the real transponders to be disconnected or fail, and so it may be silly to speculate about how to avoid this situation when there already is supposed to be a system that stops aircraft from getting lost. Even so, here are some things to consider:

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Southwest gets it (mostly) right for in-flight entertainment

Southwest recently announced a very different approach to providing in-flight entertainment. Partnering with dish network they will offer live TV and on-demand programming over the in-plane WIFI to people's personal devices. Sadly, for now, it's just Apple devices. I will presume they will extend this to other platforms, including laptops, soon, and they should consider also allowing you to rent a tablet one-way if you don't have your own.

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More on in-seat video

Just returned from an overseas trip to Moscow, I am reminded of the rant I posted earlier about the constant interruptions on the in-flight entertainment system.

Everything I said before remains valid:

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Airline bureacracy reigns at United

Two recent flight booking experiences on United Airlines:

a) I booked a round trip to Toronto with miles. Due to new plans, I ended up getting a different flight to Toronto but wanted to take the same flight back. I had booked return tickets for 2 passengers, but you can book one-way tickets for the same miles price, and you can book passengers together or independently (later joining the reservations to sit together.) It doesn't cost any more to get 4 single legs, it's just a lot more work for you and the airline.

The efficacy of trusted traveler programs

A new paper on trusted traveler programs from RAND Corp goes into some detailed math analysis of various approaches to a trusted traveler program. In such a program, you pre-screen some people, and those who pass go into a trusted line where they receive a lesser security check. The resources saved in the lesser check are applied to give all other passengers a better security check. This was the eventual goal of the failed CLEAR card -- though while it operated it just got you to the front of the line, it didn't reduce your security check.

The analysis shows that with a "spherical horse" there are situations where the TT program could reduce the number of terrorists making it through security with some weapon, though it concludes the benefit is often minor, and sometimes negative. I say spherical horse because they have to idealize the security checks in their model, just declaring that an approach has an X% chance of catching a weapon, and that this chance increases when you spend more money and decreases when you spend less, though it has diminishing returns since you can't get better than 100% no matter what you spend.

The authors know this assumption is risky. Turns out there is a form of security check which does match this model, which is random intense checking. There the percentage of weapons caught is pretty closely tied with the frequency of the random check. The TTs would just get a lower probability of random check. However, very few people seem to be proposing this model. The real approaches you see involve things like the TTs not having to take their shoes off, or somehow bypassing or reducing one of the specific elements of the security process compared to the public. I believe these approaches negate the positive results in the Rand study.

This is important because while the paper puts a focus on whether TT programs can get better security for the same dollar, the reality is I think a big motive for the TT approach is not more security, but placation of the wealthy and the frequent flyer. We all hate security and the TSA, and the airlines want to give better service and even the TSA wants to be hated a bit less. When a grandmother or 10 year old girl gets a security pat down, it is politically bad, even though it is the right security procedure. Letting important passengers get a less intrusive search has value to the airlines and the powerful, and not doing intrusive searches that seem stupid to the public has political value to the TSA as well.

We already have such a program, and it's not just the bypass of the nudatrons (X ray scanners) that has been won by members of congress and airline pilots. It's called private air travel. People with their own planes can board without security at all for them or their guests. They could fly their planes into buildings if they wished, though most are not as big as the airliners from 9/11. Fortunately, the chance that the captains of industry who fly these planes would do this is tiny, so they fly without the TSA. The bypass for pilots seems to make a lot of sense at first blush -- why search a pilot for a weapon she might use to take control of the plane? The reality is that giving a pass to the pilots means the bad guy's problem changes from getting a weapon through the X-ray to creating fake pilot ID. It seems the latter might actually be easier than the former.

Selling empty middle seats by dutch auction

I have written before about letting passengers pay for an empty middle seat next to them and recently about ANZ's cuddle class and related programs which partially implement this.

While I believe airlines could sell the empty middle for somewhere in the range of 30-40% of a regular ticket, this still has issues. In particular, are they really going to bump a poor standby passenger who had a cancelled flight and make them stay another night so that people can get a more comfortable seat?

One idea is to allow the sale of empty middles by dutch auction. In effect this would say, "If there are going to be empty middles on this plane, those who bid the most will get to sit next to them." If this can be done, it's a goldmine of extra revenue for the airline. What they sell costs them nothing -- they are just selling the distribution of passengers on the plane. If the plane fills up, however, they sell it all and nobody is charged.

The dutch auction approach would let each passenger make an offer. If there are 5 empty middles, then the 10 people who sit next to them win, but they all pay the 10th highest bid price. If only 9 passengers bid, the 10th highest price is zero, and everybody pays zero -- which is what happens today, except it's semi-random. While this may seem like a loss for the airline, many game theory tests suggest that dutch auctions often bring the best result, as they make both sides happy, and people bid more, knowing they will actually pay the fair price if they win.

(On the other hand, airlines are masters at having two people pay vastly different prices for exactly the same thing and have managed to avoid too much resentment over it.)

There is one huge problem to solve: How do you arrange that matched bidders are sitting together to share the empty middle? Each empty middle benefits two passengers.

Air New Zealand "Cuddle Class"

Some years ago I made the proposal that airlines sell half of a middle seat at half price or less so that two coach passengers could assure they would have an empty middle next to them.

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Designing a better, faster, secure, vastly cheaper airport with proto-robocars

Like just about everybody, I hate the way travel through airports has become. Airports get slower and bigger and more expensive, and for short-haul flights you can easily spend more time on the ground at airports than you do in the air. Security rules are a large part of the cause, but not all of it.

In this completely rewritten essay, I outline the design on a super-cheap airport with very few buildings, based on a fleet of proto-robocars. I call them proto models because these are cars we know how to build today, which navigate on prepared courses on pavement, in controlled situations and without civilian cars to worry about.

In this robocar airport, which I describe first in a narrative and then in detail, there are no terminal buildings or gates. Each plane just parks on the tarmac and robotic stairs and ramps move up and dock to all its doors. (Catering trucks, fuel trucks and luggage robots also arrive.) The passengers arrive in a perfect boarding order in robocars that dock at the ramps/steps to let them get on the plane through every entrance. Luggage is handled by different robots, and is checked and picked up not in carousels and check-in desks, but at curbs, parking lots, rental car centers and airport hotels.

The change is so dramatic that (even with security issues) people could arrive at airports for flights under 20 minutes before take-off, and get out even faster. Checked luggage would add time, but not much. I also believe you could build a high capacity airport for a tiny fraction of the cost of today's modern multi-billion dollar edifices. I believe the overall experience would also be more pleasant and more productive for all.

This essay is a long one, but I am interested in feedback. What will work here, and what won't? Would you love to fly through this airport or hate it? This is an airport designed not to give you a glorious building in which to wait but to get you through it without waiting most of the time.

The airport gets even better when real robocars, that can drive on the streets to the airport, come on the scene.

Give me your feedback on The Robocar Airport.

Key elements of the design include:

Robot landing pad for planes without landing gear

Here's an idea that seems a bit wild and scary at first, but it's doable today and has broad benefits: Small aircraft that don't have landing gear, but instead land and take off from robotic "can't miss" platforms pulled by cables on short airfields.

UPDATE: Some updated ideas and a link to a funded research project looking at similar ideas.

For every small aircraft purchaser, a big decision is whether to get retractable landing gear. They are very expensive, and create a risk of failure, but your plane will fly a lot faster and be more fuel efficient if you get them. What if we could leave the landing gear on the ground?

Imagine a wheeled platform on the runway with robotic control and a variety of systems to perfectly track an approaching aircraft. Pulled by cables, it can accelerate at several "g"s forward and back and left and right. As the aircraft approaches it tracks it and the cockpit display indicates positive lock. If the plane veers left, it veers left. If the plane speeds up it speeds up. Pretty much no matter what the pilot or winds do (other than missing the runway entirely) the plane can't miss landing on it. It's spring loaded so even if the landing is a bit hard the shock is cushioned. Done right, it's just like having fancy shock absorbing landing gear.

The road trip car and the hotel luggage rack

Just back from some time on the road, which always prompts me to think of ways to improve travel.

First, and most simply: Every hotel room comes with a small foldable stand on which to put your suitcase. The problem is they all come with exactly one of these. In some rooms there is space on the tables or dresser for another bag, but often there is not. Doing solo business travel I have just one bag, but all couples, and many solo wanderers have more than one, and so you end up putting bags on the floor. It's quite annoying, since these stands can hardly be very expensive -- folding cloth and metal chairs can be had for $10 in most stores. I've only tried once or twice to ask housekeeping for another, and been surprised to learn they don't keep spares. Frankly, I think it would be cheaper to just put 2 in every room than waste staff time delivering extras, but either would work. And the hotel often knows if a room is booked for 2 rather than one in advance. If you have a bellman take up your bags, not only does the bellman see how many bags you have but it's a sure thing you have several. Every bell station should have some extra racks and throw what is needed on the luggage cart.

Next, I think it would be interesting to see car rental companies develop cars just for road trips. They are the largest buyers of cars (and often owned by car companies) so custom cars are not out of the question. SUVs and some minivans contain many of the features of a road trip car, but they are often 3 times as expensive when reserved in advance, and 1.5x to 2x more expensive in gasoline usage. What features might a road trip car have?

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Airline baggage solutions

Everybody knows about the Jet Blue attendant who flew off the handle when he got hit in the head by a bag and had fights with passengers over stored carry-ons. And we know airlines are starting to charge higher fees for checked bags (and even carry-ons) which netted them over $700 million last year. This pushes more people to want to use carry-on bags, which we already wanted to save time, and that means more waits at security and more waits getting on and off flights.

I admit to being a heavy user of carry-on bags. For one thing I usually have lots of camera equipment with me which is too fragile to check unless I have bulky foam cases. Which they then might lose, and which means getting to the airport around 20 to 30 minutes earlier and leaving it 15 minutes later with several more bags. (And perversely, paying more on some airlines.)

The system is getting stretched. I've often thought about one useful solution, which would be standardized carry-on bag racks with rails. The standard sized bags would quickly slick in and click-lock in place. No doors even (except for aesthetics) and no fussing with overhead bags, or rearranging. Perhaps some small unstructured place on top or between for coats and purses and laptop bags but mostly they would go under the seat, or in the seat pocket. (Currently they are not permitted in the seat pockets but these could be strengthened and given a closure so the computer can't fly out in a crash.)

Add to this a system of official gate-check racks. These racks would be there at the gate or in the jetway. If need be they would be mounted in a special elevator or forklift so that they can be quickly and reasonably gently inserted and removed in the cargo hold. These racks would include some rails for standardized bags (especially on puddle-jumper planes which can't have as many overhead rails) and some amorphous sections with strong cargo netting. They would have shock absorbers to reduce shocks when they are put on the plane or taken out. You would place your items in these racks yourself -- in parallel with other passengers, in a wide space where doing so is not blocking others -- and the goal would be that you could put semi-fragile items, including things like cameras and laptops into the racks with full confidence. To help with this, we could have a camera on the wing which feeds the seatback screens so that passengers could watch this module as it is loaded and unloaded. This would do a lot to ensure that it is treated with care in a way that checked luggage often is not.

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Losing your passport

Last week, on my trip to Berlin, I managed to drop my passport. I don't know where -- it might have been in the bathroom of Brussels airport trying to change clothes in a tiny room after a long red-eye, or it might have been when Brussels Air made me gate check a bag requiring a big rearrangement of items, or somewhere else. But two days later, arriving at a Pension in Berlin I discovered it was missing, and a lot of calling around revealed nobody had turned it in.

In today's document hungry world this can be a major calamity. I actually have a pretty pleasant story to report, though there were indeed lots of hassles. But it turned out I had prepared for this moment in a number of ways, and you may want to do the same.

The upshot was that I applied for a passport on Wednesday, got it on Thursday, flew on Friday and again on Monday and got my permanent passport that same Monday -- remarkable efficiency for a ministry with a reputation for long bureaucracy.

After concluding it was lost, I called the Canadian Embassy in Berlin. Once you declare the passport lost, it is immediately canceled, even if you find it again, so you want to be sure that it's gone. The Embassy was just a couple of U-bahn stops away, so I ventured there. I keep all my documents in my computer, and the security guy was shocked I had brought it. He put all that gear in a locker, and even confiscated my phone -- more on that later.

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