As aviation aficionados are painfully aware, the glamor of flight has been lost to mass travel and increased security measures which separate crews from passengers. As a young boy, I loved hopping on board an Allegheny Airlines flight to Niagara, or an Eastern Airlines jet to Disney World. The Allegheny planes were classics – the British-built Convair CV-540 Vistacruiser series with Allison 501 D13D/H turboprop engines. This was a replacement for the aging Doulas DC-3. The pilots and the entire flight crew of those classic rides were heroes to me, and provided me with perspectives on aviation that led to my own interest in the field and my license to be an aviator. They still are our heroes - but this sense of glamor is largely lost upon current and next generation flyers.
That sense of heroes on the flight deck has taken a back seat to so-called automated flight, and the gross misconception that today’s flyers are merely “bus drivers in the sky.” I believe that commercial space travel is poised to bring back that spark of excitement around early commercial air travel, and a renewed sense of respect and pride among air crews. The exciting career growth possibilities for aviators is also exciting.
The commercialization of low orbit space by private enterprises is a hot topic of late. The evolution of space transport technology in the depressing aftermath of NASA’s dismantling provides an exciting perspective as to what global travel could look like down the road. The eruption of private investment in new aviation technology provides some very real benefits - including advanced pharmaceutical research and the opening of doors to the reality of space tourism. But what hasn't been discussed very much is this notion of reborn enthusiasm for the thrill of flight, and a renewal of respect for the men and women of aviation.
It is quite amazing that Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Enterprise is on schedule and promises to offer us three hour tours as soon as this year at the low, low price of $200,000 per passenger. SpaceX goes so far as to promise the colonization of Mars not so far down the road, but none of this will feel real until the first passengers are able to conveniently achieve orbit. We are right on the cusp of this exciting development.
Consider that even in these post-NASA manned flight days private industry will allow us to service and update the space station without the aid of international partners, and achieve nearly instantaneous overseas business travel using the rotation of the Earth.
My kids and yours are possibly reading this right now on FlightAware, and it will begin to sink in that as the first Galactic flight takes to the skies with paying passengers this year that this future reality is coming within grasp.
By no means is the respect for flight gone today, however. By way of reference in today’s air travel, how many of us have pushed back from the terminal at Narita Airport in Japan on an airline like ANA and experienced the company's deep-seeded respect for commercial flight? For those who haven’t, it is quite an experience. The amount of pride and perfection shown in your flight’s preparation is impressive and harkens back to early the days of commercial air-travel. Everyone from the baggage handlers to the inspectors and food service professionals lines up to send you off on your journey. You feel cared for and as if you are in good hands. As we are painfully aware, this is no longer the norm.
Since low-orbit space travel and tourism will likely involve training and preparation, I often wonder what Branson’s or Boeing’s or SpaceX’s visions will be for the customer experience. I also wonder if the utter respect that used to surround our flight crews will once again be restored in a meaningful way. Having passengers sit with crews and trainers to understand the realities of low or zero-G flight will foster a new understanding of the knowledge involved in aviation. Crews will once again be training passengers - not just telling them not to smoke and to buckle up. Flight crews will interact with passengers again throughout the flight - unfettered by locked doors and PA systems.
In the coming weeks and months I will be covering this new era of flight both from a technology perspective and also an emotional one. I will be doing this in addition to covering day in and out aviation industry issues. Our bright future in aviation continues, and it will be exciting to share that thrill of early flight feeling with my kids and yours.
How will FlightAware track commercial spaceflights? Time to call Branson.
Matt Pilla, FlightAware Staff Journalist