The Technology of Travel

This item on Gadling, the travel blog, compelled me to respond via comment, having once again been chewed up and spat out by the global air travel system (far higher markets go to the European side of the system—the US side only gave me cancellations, delays, high costs and temporary luggage loss. And this was before the pre-Christmas weather meltdown). Only, the comment ran long, so I thought it worth posting here. It's also relevant given Thomas Friedman's recent op-ed about rebooting America.

The Gadling post summarized a few forecasts (or they called them predictions) about how technologies in our pockets and hands may improve the air travel experience, citing technologies such as RFID, NFC and bluetooth as tools that can be used to keep the traveler more informed, allow him or her to interact more smoothly with the security infrastructure to get the road warrior on board on time.

Yet, with all of these technological possibilities, we face analog bottlenecks. The comment is, therefore:

I don't actually think this will make for significantly smoother, quicker or cost-effective travel. Unfortunately, as we all experience when we travel by air, the system is only as fast as its slowest component allows it to be. Air travel is a vast supply chain of poorly interconnected technologies, often dependent on very analog underpinnings.

Without commensurate improvements in everything from air traffic management, airline yield management and mass transit infrastructure systems, travelers equipped with shiny new mobile devices and signed up for biometric ID systems will only get to a stationary, dirty, expensive aircraft more quickly, and be held in the waiting area at the gate for an equally long time, watching as their upgrade to first class becomes hypothetical due to eventual flight cancellation.

We can keep making the most wired and efficient travelers more wired and efficient, but what is dearly needed is a massive upgrade to our thinking about the moving parts of the air travel system—abysmally poor airline management, short-sighted investment strategies, lax oversight and lack of initiatives to spur competition, and an ill conceived security approach all are conspiring to grind air travel to a halt, leaving us to phone home and listen to music on our bluetooth headsets as we bed down for a night of sleep or another lost day in some broken down air terminal at a major system hub.

None of this is to say we shouldn't strive for more efficient personal travel management, but if we can't actually travel, advanced travel information and ID technologies are kind of, well, ornamentation.

I feel slightly better now. Happy New Year, and smooth and safe travels.