Air travelers love nothing more than to complain about their latest flight. But modern aviation is an incredible technological achievement, and it doesn't have to be so miserable. Here's how you'll love flying again.by Chris Clarke
On the morning of March 27, 2010, United Flight 889 roared down the runway at San Francisco International Airport to begin its long-haul transoceanic flight to Beijing. The air traffic controller cleared the airliner to depart. All looked perfectly normal. And then, in an instant, it wasn't.
A small Cessna 182 was passing by en route to Palo Alto, and the big United 777 was taking off right into its path. After recognizing the imminent danger, the controller warned both planes. The Cessna pilot responded that he could see the big Boeing, but it was too late to veer out of the way gently—both aircraft had to make evasive maneuvers to stay out of danger.
Fortunately, nobody was injured and both flights continued as normal. But how did two planes in tightly controlled airport airspace come within just 300 feet of each other? An investigation would find that while the controller had been qualified for all positions in the tower for more than a decade, he was a man short on duty that day and was struggling to keep up with demand. Confusing instructions he'd received from the previous controller caused him to miss his normal scan of the radar display. What's more, this particular control tower relied on a human to stack actual strips of paper as a reminder that there might be other aircraft transitioning through the airspace. In an interview, the controller confessed that he misplaced that crucial strip.
American air traffic control "no longer has the most modern equipment, the most efficient aircraft routings, or the best technology."
Many minor lapses in judgment added up to an unnervingly close call. And the near miss at SFO shows that while controllers do an amazing job with the resources given to them, America's air traffic control system can be remarkably stuck in the past. American ATC "no longer has the most modern equipment, the most efficient aircraft routings, or the best technology of any of the world's air traffic control providers." That's according to three former chief operating officers of the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Organization, as well as three previous secretaries of transportation.
Or you can take it from one controller who asked not to be named: "Paper strips, pre-Commodore flight data input/output, landline communication from around the Apollo program era. One of the busiest approach controls in the world. Our radar just went multi-site with 1 second updates though! This is what relying on Congress for funding does."
The costs of air traffic control have continued to rise, as has the size of the controller workforce. Decades of steadily increasing air traffic have put excess pressure on air traffic controllers. Planes fly around the clock, and the greenest controllers get saddled with overnight or odd shifts, often stuck in a dark room while senior employees opt for cushy positions in places with little air traffic and good weather.
It's a mess. But it doesn't have to be this way.
Nearly all talk between ATC and flight crews happens by voice radio. Each communication requires a verbal response and acknowledgment by both parties. A series of ground-based towers across the North American continent forms the spine of this system. As they cross the country, pilots continually update to the correct frequency to maintain contact with ATC. There are many drawbacks to this system beyond making pilots do extra work, including blocked frequencies, out-of-range signals—even failures to communicate because of dialects or accents.
This approach to ATC dates back to its beginnings in the 1950s. The first attempts to get away from it started in the early 1980s, when planes needed a better way to communicate in places out of the range of both radar and normal VHF radio, such as out over the oceans. Boeing and Airbus both developed digital communications systems using GPS to locate and navigate airplanes, and Inmarsat satellites so pilots and controllers could talk.
While the FAA accepted this kind of GPS-based system in theory, it took years to develop compatibility software to allow controllers to receive radar-like position information for their screens. Once this system became operational in Pacific and North Atlantic airspace, it took the FAA more than a decade of testing to adopt a similar program for domestic airspace. In 2003, the FAA put an indefinite hold on development. It wasn't until 2012 that the program relaunched with the capability to begin this year. Even so, it won't be fully operational until 2025.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the German and Swiss corporations responsible for air traffic are using this type of data link for all phases of flight, including predeparture clearance, climb-out, en route, approach, and landing.
"Separation of air traffic" is a fancy way of saying it's a controller's job to keep planes from running into each other. Since the 1950s, they have done this primarily by using ground radar systems that point up at the sky. Primary radar tracks an aircraft's position while secondary radar reads an aircraft's altitude from its transponder.
This simple technology works, for the most part. But radar relies on line of sight from the ground antenna to the plane. Aircraft flying at low levels or in mountainous terrain may lose contact. Because the plane's exact location is unclear and communications may be spotty, controllers put heavy restrictions on where planes are routed and what weather conditions they can fly through. Another big flaw is speed. The rotating radar dish will update an aircraft's position only once every 12 seconds. That means an airplane traveling at 500 mph could be more than a mile and a half away from the position a controller sees on her radar scope.
A seismic shift in navigation came in the 1990s when the U.S. government released the global positioning system for use by the public, leading to GPS in our cars and eventually our phones. So why not planes? The FAA announced a GPS-based program called Automatic Dependence Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) that would broadcast a plane's precise position to controllers and to nearby aircraft every second. This technology is the cornerstone of the much-touted NextGen Air Transportation system. Proposed in 2003, this satellite-based system would eliminate the need for antiquated ground-based radar and radio.The FAA has spent years testing this system, and in 2010 the agency mandated that all aircraft flying within controlled U.S. airspace must update their transponders by 2020.
It's not happening. While satellite tracking would make aviation better and safer, many private operators—be they big aviation companies or Joe Pilot who owns his own plane—receive no immediate benefit from equipping planes with expensive new transponders. The upgrade could cost thousands of dollars, so many people are playing wait-and-see with the FAA, hoping to goad the agency into extending the deadline or offering incentives to make the switch. Airlines, too, are also hesitant to upgrade. Even the United States Air Force can't meet the deadline.
"Separation of air traffic" is a fancy way of saying it's a controller's job to keep planes from running into each other.
Back in the private sector, technology moves on. In 2012, Iridium debuted a 66-satellite constellation offering global GPS coverage. The company offered this system to the FAA for use over the mainland United States, but the government balked at the opportunity. Meanwhile, Nav Canada, which owns and operates Canada's civil air navigation system, jumped at the opportunity. Using this GPS system to fly more efficient routes and altitudes in the polar and ocean regions is expected to save the country's airlines billions of dollars per year.
Why is the FAA dragging its landing gear while Canada is cleared for takeoff? For one thing, Nav Canada is a private corporation, and, as such, can make a timely business decision. The FAA, a government agency, must prove competitive due diligence and receive authorized appropriations from Congress, whose representatives aren't always motivated to close down obsolete facilities, especially if it means losing jobs in their districts. Even the FAA's current plan for bringing in satellite-based nav relies heavily on radar as a backup for GPS surveillance, which reduces funding for a new and modern system.
When cross-country flights were new and engineers needed to invent a way for airplanes to navigate vast distances, their solution was a series of radio stations generally found near airports or larger cities. Flight crews would fly to the closest radio station in range of their desired route, then change radio frequencies and point the plane to the next station. Many common routes became designated as official airways, or highways in the sky. It worked. But it's not the most effiecient way to choose your flight path.
Here again, the rise of GPS in the '90s brought about the potential for revolution. Satellites allow for performance-based navigation (PBN), in which an airplane's onboard computers calculate their own position with more accuracy and integrity than ever before. With super-precise data and a strong GPS signal, planes can fly closer together without fear of colliding. They also could navigate off the grid, free from the ground-based system that's the backbone of air traffic control.
This navigation technology can make a huge difference for the approach and landing portion of every flight as well. Today, the Instrument Landing System (ILS) guides aircraft to the runway in poor weather via a radio signal that creates a virtual path on a cockpit display. These limited radio signals can generate only a straight path; PBN guidance, though, can create a straight or curving path to suit any scenario. Advanced satellite navigation could guide planes around obstacles to an altitude below the clouds to make a safe landing. Plus, custom approach routes can reduce noise pollution and save fuel. Every single airport could be doing this without installing a single piece of equipment.
The FAA has embraced the idea of high-performance navigation but not implemented it. In many places, it has allowed planes to use GPS to navigate the existing routes but not taken advantage of the technology's ability to permit new paths. This has annoyed the airlines, who retrofitted their planes only to realize they still must fly traditional departure and approach paths, which doesn't save time, reduce fuel use, or save them any money.
Even when the agency tries to get forward-thinking, something goes wrong. Recently, FAA developed 27 short curved approaches over water at the Seattle-Tacoma airport and tested them, but has yet to certify the new routes. Why? It hasn't completed the long process of updating the air traffic controllers' handbook.
It took one sabateur to break the whole system.
In September 2014, FAA contractor Brian Howard set fire to an air traffic control radar center in Aurora, Illinois, in what was reportedly a suicide attempt (Howard lived and would be sentenced to twelve and a half years for the crime). That location coordinated flights though the metro Chicago area, one of the busiest in the world, and the arson sent many sectors completely offline. With radar and communications down, controllers could no longer see or speak with aircraft in the area. "We just had a major loss of power. November 7-1-5 Lima Mike, Chicago. November 7-1-5 Lima Mike on 121.5. Are you here?" Zero traffic could be cleared to fly through the area.
Although no accidents happened because of the fire, a ripple effect of flight delays lingered for two weeks. Nearly two years later, the FAA has done little to reduce its response to major facility outages from days to hours.
A flight crew may talk to 10 air traffic controllers during the course of a given flight— ground control, tower control, departure control, multiple center controllers, approach control, back to a new tower and ground controllers. Each transfer must be carefully coordinated. But that doesn't mean it's high-tech. Sometimes a controller literally calls the next person in line. Sometimes controllers pass information written on plain old paper.
"We have strips," one en route controller tells PM. "We use info on these strips to separate traffic using pure nonradar. Sometimes we can't even communicate directly with planes. The layers of abstraction are crazy."
"Sometimes we can't even communicate directly with planes. The layers of abstraction are crazy."
Because each ATC sector is a unique entity, they have "letters of agreement" with all adjacent sectors dictating how and when aircraft will be transitioned from one to the other. It's just as bureaucratic as it sounds. Generally these letters say they must request and accept the transfer of any flight. If communications are down or a controller cannot accept the request, the flight must be diverted to a different sector or put into a hold. This causes delays and airspace congestion. When you consider the communication technologies now available in the world at large, it boggles the mind that pilots are not assigned a single and secure line of communication throughout the duration of the fight.
There are currently 167 terminal radar facilities for approach and departure traffic around the U.S. and another twenty centers that control en route air traffic. But if planes can provide their own real-time flight information using these new technologies, then we don't need a nationwide network of radar stations. There's no reason air traffic could not be managed from anywhere.
Maybe you can see where this is going. Such a consolidation could make air traffic control much more efficient, but it certainly won't be politically easy. In 2010, for example, the FAA started on a plan to blend en route and terminal airspace to optimize high-traffic areas, but this nationwide effort was downsized to just one center that monitors high-demand airspace around the New York metro area. The FAA's plans tend to be met with opposition from unionized air traffic controllers, who realize consolidation and optimization mean their jobs could be relocated—or eliminated. The FAA employs nearly 15,000 controllers at a median wage in excess of $124,000. No wonder there's pushback.
What if the business of air traffic control were to break off from the FAA, freeing the system from the bureaucracy of a federal government agency? This isn't just idle talk. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency created by the United Nations to manage aviation standards among its 191 member states, recommends all nations separate air traffic control from aviation safety agencies. While nearly all member countries do so, the United States has not.
It matters, because the FAA's identity as a safety agency has contributed to a status quo culture with little incentive for innovation and development. It's not that there aren't good people pushing new ideas at the FAA; it's that this syndrome is seen in other large bureaucracies with no risk of financial failure and little motivation to excel. Even the Government Accountability Office has had to get involved and request a comprehensive change of strategy so that the air traffic control system could attract talented engineers.
Fixing air traffic control is a monumental task, but cleaving ATC from the regulating duties of the FAA could be a big first step. The new entity could be a government organization or, the way our neighbors to the north do it, a nonprofit organization with its focus on its customers. Other successful ATC systems around the world require representatives from airlines, business aviation, airports, and employees to sit on the governing board that sets policy. This model could allow the organization to make faster and better business decisions.
Then there's the money. Every few months brings news of a possible FAA shutdown because Congress hasn't approved its funding, meaning that the agency frequently finds itself running on short-term funding while it waits on Congress. This cash-flow uncertainty makes it difficult for any organization to plan and put into place new technologies.
Recently, some members of Congress (led by Bill Shuster, the chairman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) have been pushing for a new way to fund ATC. Instead of the government paying for air traffic control (currently funding comes via an excise tax on fuel and airline tickets), flyers would pay for it directly. A portion of every gallon of fuel or ticket sold would pay for the national airspace and air traffic control system. If air traffic control were self-funded, then the use tax could be lifted and ATC could get immediate access to cash without having to appeal to Congress.
There's no reason the air traffic system in the United States can't continue to be the largest and safest. But with a new direction, it could also be the most advanced and efficient system in the world. Implementing new technologies would reduce air transportation congestion around major metropolitan airports, cutting noise and emissions pollution while simultaneously reducing costs. It could lead to a better, saner life for the controllers who dedicate their lives to keeping the skies safe.
It's enough to drive you crazy: Should I book that plane ticket now, or wait a few days to see if the price drops? We all play this game and we all hear the same kind of advice about how to win it, but here's what the data say.
According to data from the Airline Reporting Corporation, domestic fares are cheapest between 50 and 100 days before the flight. The lowest fares can be found 57 days ahead of takeoff, to be exact. Unsurprisingly, the worst time to buy a ticket is the day of the flight, when fares are about 50 percent higher than their cheapest level. Take a roundtrip flight that left New York for Chicago this past June 1. Five months before the flight it cost $266, according to FareCompare. By April 1, around 60 days before, it was down to $203. The week before departure, the price bounced back up to $243.
For international flights, you've got to be an early bird. The cheapest flights can be found 150 to 225 days before takeoff, when fares are about $300 less than the average price.
The lowest fares can be found 57 days ahead of takeoff, to be exact.
Expedia says that if you're booking more than 21 days ahead of the flight, then Tuesdays are your best bet (that's when airlines tend to release their fares). If you're sticking to the Tuesday rule, the key time is 3 p.m. Eastern, right when new fares are released. For last-minute bookers, Sunday is the best choice.
Where to buy? Travel sites like Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity (which are owned by the same company, by the way—it's just the illusion of competition) may seem like the way to go, since they compare fares from tons of airlines all in one place. Sometimes they are. But consider that they charge fees and don't provide some add-on options—Wi-Fi and extra legroom, for instance. So check your fare quote on Kayak against what's on an airline's own site.—Rachel Z. Arndt
The summer from hell: That's what you could call this season for air travelers who've been waiting in longer TSA checkpoint lines than ever, sometimes missing their flights even when they showed up hours early. If you've found yourself staring longingly at the people in the pre-check fast lane but figured it's just for the George Clooneys of the world, don't. It's for you and me. Trust me, I just got it.
Signing up for TSA PreCheck costs $85, but you should consider getting the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's Global Entry program, which, for just $15 more, puts you in the fast lane at the customs line. It includes PreCheck and lasts for five years. Register for an account here to begin the application process. The government asks for five years of address and employment history. Then pay the feds their money and that's it. They check your background, and if there are no red flags, they send you a note of approval and a reminder to schedule an interview. Bring a couple forms of ID, answer a few questions, and you could be fingerprinted and photographed before you know it.
When you're approved, your Global Entry ID card will be sent in the mail and the customs agent will hand you your Known Traveler Number. Next time you book a flight, put that number in the designated box. When you print your boarding pass, a big "TSA PRE CHECK" will be plastered on it. You're on your way to the fast lane.—Andrew Moseman
All that stands between you and lost luggage is that flimsy paper tag stuck to your bag. But companies and airlines are coming up with new ways to end this nightmare once and for all.
Better Tags: Lufthansa is testing a new technology called HomeTag. Passengers print their own luggage tags at home. Those printed tags slip inside a durable and weather-resistant holder with a built-in RFID chip that contains passenger information. If there's a problem with your paper tag, your luggage still has a digital version of that information.
Better Tracking: Companies are now developing trackers to follow suitcases in real time. Luggage giantSamsoniteand startups such asPlanetTravelerhave created luggage with built-in GPS trackers. Meanwhile,TrakDothas created a solution that involves packing a tiny device in your suitcase alongside your toothbrush and underwear. This requires a SIM card, so you'll be paying for service of some kind, but it can text you your suitcase's exact GPS location and even let you know when it's headed your way on the luggage carousel.
Better Labels: Another simple solution would be to offer customers a unique QR code with their flight information. Your ticket? There it is. On your bag? There again. That QR code could be tied to your basic travel information, offering anyone who scans it a quick way to determine whom a bag belongs to and where it should be going. The companyTagOncealready offers something similar to consumers for just $10. Wouldn't it be nice if this were a standard feature for airline passengers?—Emily Price
Some people just accept that if you fly across many times zones, you're going to feel like crap. It's true that jet-setting is hard on the human body, but there are some simple, smart things you can do to lessen the wrath of jet lag.
Choose the Right Flight:The National Sleep Foundationrecommends arriving in the early-evening local time. Once you arrive, try to stay up until around 10 p.m., even it's 5 p.m. local time and you're already ready for a snooze. This will give your body a baseline for bedtime and accelerate your adjustment to the new time zone.
Choose the Right Seat: Make in-flight nap hours count by selecting a seat where you sleep undisturbed. Book early and select the window seat so you don't have to wake up for another passenger's potty breaks (unless you're the frequent bathroom visitor, in which case the aisle might be the better bet.) Hunt for a spot away from high-traffic areas like the restroom.
Once you board, change the time on your watch or phone so you're already thinking in your new time zone.
Start Early: If you're traveling across many time zones, then get a jump start on beating jet lag by adjusting your schedule a few days before you fly. Keep that adjustment going when you get on the plane. Once you board, change the time on your watch or phone (if you can do so manually) so you're already thinking in your new time zone.
Skip the In-Flight Movie: Experts suggest not watching television right before bed because screens emit blue-spectrum light that messes with your body clock. Same goes for planes. Try to avoid watching movies, playing on your phone, or reading a novel on your iPad right before sleep.
Go Outside: If you can't stay awake, try heading outdoors. The sun can be a huge help in beating jet lag, as light cues help your body understand the local time. Researchers at Stanfordrecently discovered that exposure to short bursts of light while you're sleepingbefore your trip can all but eliminate jet lag.—Emily Price
In-flight Wi-Fi—which too often has barely enough bandwidth to load a webpage—is getting better, thanks to increased competition, advanced technologies, and passengers' general reluctance to put up with this pokiness anymore. Here's how in-flight Wi-Fi got so bad, and why soon you'll be streaming Silicon Valley from coach.
Gogo provides the Wi-Fi for most American airlines. It was in the business of telephone calls in the sky before it almost single-handedly birthed the market for aviation internet. To make plane phone calls work, the company used technology called air-to-ground (ATG), where antennas blast signals upward toward the underbellies of passing planes. The planes are outfitted with adorable little belly-fins to catch the signal and distribute it through the cabin.
Gogo's in-flight Wi-Fi piggybacks on this infrastructure. The technical challenge of supplying an airplane with a steady connection is similar to passing a person's cellphone call from tower to tower as she drives down the highway—it just happens much, much faster.
Here's where it gets dicey. Gogo's original network topped out at 3 Mbps, slower than what your phone pulls from a mediocre 4G connection—and that connection is shared with the entire plane. An air-to-ground connection is the equivalent of running a straw all the way up to an airplane, but just one straw for everyone to share. If you want to graduate from groaning at a Gmail tab that refuses to load to watching Netflix, the solution is to reinvent the system.
In the mid-1990s, the FCC opened the "ka" band of radio waves for internet-serving satellites. A number of companies tried to establish satellite internet businesses and failed miserably, including Microsoft-backed Teledesic, which spent some $9 billion on the project. The satellites of the time just weren't ready. Satellite internet earned a bad name the industry has yet to shake.
Today's sats can fire clusters of much smaller beams. ViaSat-1 can dish out more than 100 Gbps of bandwidth, the equivalent of equipping 100 homes with Google Fiber's gigabit service. These are the satellites that make inflight Wi-Fi bearable. While a plane still gets only one connection, there's enough bandwidth in 100 Gpbs for everyone onboard to enjoy a 10 to 15 Mbps slice, akin to decent broadband on the ground. JetBlue, which partnered with ViaSat to create its "Fly-Fi" in-flight Wi-Fi, now offers basic internet to the entire plane for free and allows flyers who pay to watch streaming video.
Satellite internet isn't perfect. Thanks to the long paths signals take (ground to space then to plane) and pesky limits like the speed of light, satellite internet connections have bad latency, which manifests itself as lag that makes online games or video chat annoying. But for stuff like watching Netflix, it just means a little bit of extra buffer time up front.
How soon will you be watching Game of Thrones from your window seat? There are a few hurdles. The first step is outfitting planes to accept internet from satellites. It requires a big lump that sits on top of the plane. Installing one means pulling an aircraft out of rotation, which airlines are disinclined to go.
But the biggest holdup is the boring reality of business. During the early years of in-flight Wi-Fi, when Gogo had a near monopoly on sky internet, itsecured decades-long contracts to be the exclusive internet providerof many airlines. This February, American Airlines prepared to sue Gogo over the shoddiness of its service. The contract between the pair extends into 2018, but includes a clause requiring Gogo to match the service of its competitors. It looked like the pair might hash out their differences, but in JuneAmerican announced a new dealwith rival ViaSat. Gogo, meanwhile, sees the writing on the wall. It's researching two different satellite internet methods of its own.
Sophisticated satellites will birth better in-flight internet. The way we'll get that sweet connection is through competition with a side dish of time. We'll just have to wait while the revolution buffers.
Because getting drunk on the plane doesn't mean settling for what's in the beverage cart.by Alyson Sheppard
Nothing beats a good drink to ease the tension of being on an airplane, but you don't have to settle for what's on the beverage cart. With a little forethought, you can easily mix your own mile-high cocktails.
The first thing to know is that your sense of taste isn't the same at 30,000 feet. "There's really no humidity, there's lower air pressure, there's background noise," says Russ Brown, American Airlines' director of in-flight food and beverage. "There are a lot of things that impact your senses and food experiences when you're inside that metal tube." That's why a salty, spicy Bloody Mary tastes so good in-flight, and why you should choose a bold red wine over a dainty one.
Remember, the longer you're in the air, the more dehydrated and fatigued you're going to get. So a drink will probably taste better at the beginning of a flight than at the end. "An airline experience is really most exciting at the beginning," Brown says.
The beverage cart carries the ingredients for simple cocktails like a gin and tonic or a Jack and Coke. But there is a cadre of bartenders like Chris Hannah, head bartender atArnaud's French 75in New Orleans, who are perfecting the art of mixing craft cocktails from an airplane seat. They bring professional bar tools, homemade syrups, and bitters on board to create complex drinks you can't order from a flight attendant.
"There's something about the clouds and that seat that make cocktails that much better 30,000 feet up."
The most elaborate drink Hannah ever made on an airplane is the Vieux Carre: whiskey, cognac, vermouth, Benedictine, and bitters. "It was the best Vieux Carre I've ever had," Hannah says. "There's something about the clouds and that seat that make cocktails that much better 30,000 feet up."
Get ingredients like raspberry and ginger syrups at home and bring them on board in TSA-approved bottles (3.4 ounces or smaller). Same for mini-bottles of hot sauce and cocktail bitters. "The mini Angostura bottles are clutch," Hannah says. "Then go to the bars in the concourse and ask for lime and lemon wedges. You're already through security, so you can just carry them in your pocket."
Once on board, get the spirit you'd like from the flight attendant. Also get the mixers, sodas, and juices off the cart. Ask for a cup of ice—that will be your makeshift mixing glass. You'd be surprised what you can mix up in coach. Is there scotch on the flight? Order a tiny bottle of that, then combine it with the juice of a few lemon wedges and some ginger syrup, and you've got a penicillin. To make a simple old-fashioned, mix a mini bottle of bourbon with two dashes of Angostura bitters, a sugar packet, and a few dashes of water. Stir and sip. The possibilities are endless.
Why flying makes you feel like dying, and how they're going to fix it.by Barbara Peterson
That hangover you feel after a long flight doesn't mean you're sick. It's probably a side effect of the extreme dryness and pressurization of the cabin atmosphere. Doctors will tell you that a comfortable humidity level for most people ranges from 40 to 70 percent. In most airplane cabins, the humidity level is closer to 20 percent, and the air pressure is equivalent to what you'd experience if you climbed an 8,000-foot mountain.
"Passengers are effectively suffering from the effects of acute mountain sickness," says Richard Dawood, a London physician and author of a book on travel medicine, Travelers' Health: How to Stay Healthy Abroad.
"Passengers are effectively suffering from the effects of acute mountain sickness."
Newer planes, including the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, are pressurized at closer to 6,000 feet. A difference of 2,000 feet may not seem significant, but Boeing says its research shows otherwise. The company conducted an experiment using several hundred volunteers who were subjected to various air pressure levels without being informed of the details. According to the research, the test subjects showed no adverse effects from pressures ranging from sea level to 6,000 feet. But when the pressure was raised to 7,000 or 8,000 feet, the results were startling, with one source reporting that "people started complaining like there was no tomorrow."
Why does flying make you feel so dehydrated? Because of the dangers of corrosion on all-metal aircraft, the atmosphere inside one has to be as dry as a desert. Thankfully there's a solution that'll make airlines and their passengers happy.
The single biggest difference for your well-being will come with the advance of all-composite aircraft. These planes can endure much higher humidity than any traditional metal plane because composite materials—mainly plastics reinforced with carbon fiber—are more flexible. As of mid-2016, there were more than 400 Boeing 787s plying the skies, and 21 Airbus A350s. This represents a small fraction of the world's fleet, but the percentage of composite-made aircraft is on the rise. "You're going to notice a few things missing from the 787, things like headaches, fatigue, and dryness," gushes a Boeing company brochure about the Dreamliner.
That should be a reminder to anyone who bemoans the passing of the so-called golden age of flying. Before the arrival of jet engines and pressurization, which allowed planes to fly above rough weather, most people became so violently ill in flight that the plane's cabin had to be thoroughly scrubbed down upon arrival. Yuck.
Let's talk about that recirculated air you have to breathe during your many hours in flight. An oft-repeated claim that pilots can reduce the percentage of fresh air in the cabin to as little as 20 percent to save fuel is untrue, according to the FAA as well as pilots' groups. (The air is loaded onto the plane in air-conditioning "packs" and the cockpit simply switches them on as needed.) As for another common myth that recycled air is more likely to spread disease, most doctors say that's not the case. Air is circulated vertically, meaning you're no more likely to catch the flu from someone sitting ten rows back than you would be in a movie theater or other enclosed space.
Still, we could be doing more for cabin air quality. Today, cabin air is filtered through a system similar to what's used in hospitals, but it won't catch the tiniest bugs. BAE Systems' Air Manager filter, developed with Quest International, uses patented "non-thermal plasma" to trap not only germs and particles but also contaminants and foul odors. Air Manager was approved for installation on BAE's own 146-series of smaller jets. The new device could be used as a replacement on aircraft when current filtration systems reach the end of their useful life. (At a cost of around $80,000 for a full-size jet, it's not likely that airlines would rush to install them ahead of schedule.)
For many people who hate to fly, the worst part isn't the TSA line. the baggage fees, or the cramped seats. It's the way a smooth flight can suddenly turn into a scary, shaking ride from hell.
Airlines are now testing technology that could help pilots avoid turbulence altogether. The Total Turbulence system used by American, Alaska, United, and several other carriers uses a patented algorithm integrated with a plane's existing systems. It collects data on the intensity of turbulent weather with the aim of getting the data to pilots who might be nearby so they can take corrective action. And for the more insidious clear-air turbulence, scientists are developing a way to spot this using ultraviolet lasers—they send pulses into the air ahead to hunt for troublesome patches of air.
Airlines are now testing technology that could help pilots avoid turbulence altogether.
Airlines aren't just looking out for our happiness here—turbulence is their problem, too. Incidence of turbulence is on the rise, and it is increasingly the cause of serious in-flight injuries; the cost to the industry has risen to more than $100 million a year. With climate change set to make turbulence worse, the race is on for a better warning system.
It won't be a cramped can of misery. It will be amazing.by Rachel Z. Arndt
People used to dress up for airplane flights. (They used to smoke on airplanes too, but never mind that.) These days, though, spandex and sweatpants are the uniform of choice, and it's not hard to see why. Who wants to wear real, tight pants with just 31 inches or so between seat backs? And that's with the guy in front of you keeping his seat upright.
The future looks pretty bleak, too, at least when we get a peek into the torture devices that aviation companies are drawing on napkins and then registering with the U.S. Patent Office: Zodiac Seats France's"Economy Class Cabin Hexagon"for one, andAirbus' roller-coaster-style seatsfor another.Getty Images
Airbus and Boeing, which make most of the aircraft in commerical use today, have both proposed futuristic, almost fanciful visions of the airliner of tomorrow. Airbus's isn't subtle. It's see-through. Last year the company released a design for a concept plane that can morph from transparent to opaque on command. Inside, passengers will interact with holograms—showing "virtual decors," such as images of the destination—as their seats harvest their waste body heat for energy.Getty Images
Boeing, meanwhile, is working on a new variant of the 777 that will be "the largest and most efficient twin-engine jet in the world," with an extra-wide, 235-foot wingspan that creates more lift, reducing fuel use. Helpfully, the tips of the 777X's wings fold up so the plane can fit on commercial runways. On the inside, the 777X will have larger windows that are higher up—at eye level, so no more hunching over to catch that view of the skyline as you take off. A projection-screen ceiling will change during the flight, simulating night and day to help passengers ease into new time zones. And the cabin will be wider, which means wider seats, too.Getty Images
Everything's even better up in business and first classes, of course. There, concept planes sport pods, privacy screens, and couches that look like they belong in clubs. Some of these planes already exist. "At the top of the tree is Etihad Airways' 'The Residence,'" says James Tanner, an associate with Factorydesign, an aviation and product design firm. For $32,000, the airline will give you and a partner a private bathroom, bedroom, and living room—and a butler. Most of us can't spend a new car's worth of dollars on a quality in-flight experience, though. "Economy passengers have been largely neglected," Tanner says. "Alleviating this problem will mean better designed seating—using new materials that can thin the seatback to make more room for your knees."Getty Images
SmartTray makes tray tables that cradle tablets and smartphones. Epson foresees a time when we're all watching movies not on tiny seat-back TV screens but on its Moverio BT-200 goggles, which create the illusion that the projected image is on a screen five meters in front of the viewer.Getty Images
Even with crazy interiors, the exteriors of planes tend to look about the same: long, aluminum tubes with small windows. But there may be more drastic changes afoot, bringing us airplanes that look as crazy outside as they do within. A collaboration between Holland's Delft Univeristy of Technology and KLM, for instance, envisions a smoothed-out plane, with wings that are connected seamlessly to the airplane's body.Getty Images
Spike Aerospace's S-512 Supersonic Business Jet looks like a pointy-nosed space shuttle.Getty Images
And planes presented in 2010 to NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate include the "double bubble" D8, designed by researchers at MIT, and a 20-passenger propeller plane designed by GE for flights between smaller airports.Getty Images
But the plane with perhaps the most radical look comes not from a company but from an individual designer. Oscar Viñals' AWWA-QG Progress Eagle concept is a triple-decker plane that would be powered by hydrogen fuel engines for takeoff and wind turbines for cruising, as well as roof-mounted solar panels. And as a bonus, passengers could sit in "pilot's class," where they'd get a view straight out of the front of the plane. "My dream airplane should be, first of all, eco-friendly and self-sufficient," Viñals says. Supersonic speed isn't a must, but it "could be a very good option."
Given their constantly troubled bottom lines, it's obvious why airlines insist on making us miserable and cramming as many people into planes as possible. But it doesn't have to be this way. Lots of people, airline builders included, are imagining a future in which flying inspires the luxurious allure of yesteryear rather than the dread of being herded into ever-more-cramped coach.
In 20 years, plane designer Oscar Viñals says, he thinks the airplane cabin will be a "harmonious space, with advanced devices, similar to spacecraft." Tanner thinks that in two decades, if graphene takes off, "it might be possible to have near-transparent cabins." And, he says, "hopefully, by then, we will have cracked the problem of not enough space in economy."
Here's hoping it doesn't take that long.
Flying has become so normal, such a chore, that it's easy to forget soaring through the air like a bird is amazing.by Jeff Wise
In 1980, there were more than 800,000 active pilots. Today there are fewer than 600,000, and every year their average age gets older. Flying is dying—but its salvation may lie in a humble plane over 70 years old.
While Americans are racking up more frequent-flyer miles than ever before, fewer are able to fly themselves. And that's a shame, because there's nothing quite as thrilling as being at the controls of a plane, soaring high above the earth. I fly for fun, and it is a mind-altering experience, watching the world morph before your eyes into a vast horizon-to-horizon landscape.
Piloting a drone versus piloting a small plane is the difference between watching Fast and Furious and feeling the raw power of an actual car.
Granted, you don't have to go up in a small plane to get that bird's-eye view. Retail drones are getting better, and video-streaming models let you take to the sky while keeping your feet on the ground. It's much cheaper—and infinitely safer—than flying in a plane.
But piloting a drone versus piloting a small plane is the difference between watching Fast and Furious and feeling the raw power of an actual car. With a drone you'll never know how your stomach floats when you push down the nose, what it's like to thread a canyon of towering cumulous clouds, how it feels to grease your first perfect landing. You'll never have skin in the game.
Back in 2004, the FAA started its Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) initiative as a way to attract new pilots. The rules encouraged manufacturers to make light aircraft cheaper and better, and introduced a new kind of license called Sport Pilot that lets prospective pilots get their wings in half the time and at half the cost. It didn't work. We've seen some attractive new aircraft come on the scene, like the headline-grabbing Icon A5 seaplane, but visit any small airport in the country and most of the small planes you'll see parked along the taxiways will have been built in the early 1980s, if not before.
A bare-bones Light Sport Aircraft might cost something in the neighborhood of $120,000, but once you load it up with the kind of electronics that most pilots want, the price tag winds up closer to $200,000. That's way out of reach of most Americans, and way above what an older (but more capable) Cessna will cost. Couple that with the price of aviation gas, which remains perplexingly high in the midst of a fuel glut, and flying goes from a hobby to an unaffordable luxury.
As someone who has been lucky enough to get stick time in everything from military jets to zeppelins to gyrocopters, I can tell you that advanced technology is a wonderful thing. I also think too much tech might be one of the things holding recreational flying back. If we want more Americans to discover the wonder of seeing the world unspool beneath them in their own aircraft, then we have to get modern aviation away from overcomplicated gadgets.
These add-ons make it easier to fly, but they come between a pilot and the act of flight. There's an expression, "children of the magenta line," to describe pilots who've gotten so used to following the line on their GPS displays that they stop looking out the window, developing that robust sense of where they are in the air. Ever heard of people who drive into a lake because their GPS told them to? These are their aerial cousins.
I think there might be an answer.
I found it at one of my favorite airports, Walter J. Koladza in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. First opened in the 1920s, GBR is a modest facility: a couple of hangars and a single short runway. But here, in a hill-hemmed farming valley, is a close-knit community of pilots who can usually be found hobnobbing in the office as they help themselves to a box of doughnuts.
When I first showed up at GBR 15 years ago, a sturdy two-seat Cherokee 140 training aircraft rented for $60 an hour. Now, they're $125 an hour. In an effort to make flying lessons cheaper, the airport acquired a Light Sport Aircraft and began offering training for Sport Pilot licenses. A well-meaning effort, but one that ran into the same indifference LSAs have met everywhere.
Then, one of the airport's owners, airport captain Richard Solan, took a different tack. He bought a couple of venerable Piper Cubs and had them restored to top-notch condition.
Now pushing 70 years, Piper Cubs are made of tubing covered in fabric, a construction technique that was obsolete well before Pearl Harbor. They are both sluggish and tricky to fly, with a penchant for punishing pilots who let down their guard too soon after touchdown. They don't have any fancy electronics. In fact, they don't have an electrical system at all. To start the engine, you have to pull down on the propellor like they do in World War I movies, an action that always gives me the distinct sense I could be chopped into pieces if I'm not careful.
I love Cubs.
Why? For starters, they're cheap, nearly as cheap to rent as the Cherokees in the good old days. And that cheapness means I can spend more time in the air. And what a way to be there! The rudders and pedals at my feet and the stick in my hand are connected by wires that run through pulleys to the ailerons and elevator and rudder. I pull on the air, and the air pulls on me. Light and underpowered, this cloth bird bounces in the swirling wind. On a summer day, the window on my right-hand side folds up and the door folds down, and I've got a panoramic view of forested hills floating past so close I can practically touch them. This, I think, is the sort of flight Leonardo da Vinci dreamed of.
If we're talking about the pure and simple joy of flying like a bird, the Cub is about as good as it gets.
I grant you, the Cub isn't a great plane for every purpose. It's not aerobatic, it can't carry much, and it's hardly a traveling machine. But there's a reason that, even though Piper stopped making the Cub in 1947, a number of manufacturers are making new LSA versions of them today. If we're talking about the pure and simple joy of flying like a bird, the Cub is about as good as it gets.
No GPS-laden avionics system could improve this picture, and any electronic geegaw you throw on the Cub will only make it worse, raising the cost, complicating the experience, and physically getting between me and the world. Children of the magenta line could never be born while aloft in the Cub.
Technology can solve a lot of problems, but it can't fix all of them. Sometimes, the less you've got, the better. To get more people up in the air, the future of flying may look a lot like the past.
Illustrations by Kyle Fewell.
Motion Graphics by Crystal Law