24 hour plane people

I first flew overseas in 1985. I was eight, and my parents had decided to move to London. I boarded the Qantas plane with a sense of enormous excitement. Every detail was fascinating to me, from the safety cards to the inflight magazine to the strange compartmentalised food. I can still remember being engrossed by the kids’ channel on the inflight audio system, which involved a game where you had to evade the nefarious Black Knight.

I was somewhat confused by the morality of this, being a Knight myself, but of course, I understood what they were telling me – that a black knight must necessarily be bad, whereas a white knight would of course be good. And that, folks, is how racism starts.Hang on, that’s not the point of this story at all. Although now that I think of it, why does white always get to go first in chess? How typical is that? Why can’t they toss a coin? And in the age of Obama, why can’t we have a chess set where all the pieces are half-black and half-white?

Anyway – the point of this story, other than to illustrate that I really like planes, even to this day, is this: it took us roughly 24 hours to get to London. We had a stopover in Singapore, where I looked at electronic shops with absolute fascination, and in Bahrain, where I looked at pit toilets with absolute bafflement.

The idea of getting to London in only a day would have seemed a miracle back when there was no option besides a sea journey taking weeks. It would have seemed almost as miraculous in the early days of Qantas, when the flying-boats used to do the journey in nine days. The jumbo jet changed the nature of international travel irrevocably.

But my 24-hour flight to London was 27 years ago. Since then, jets have become larger and more fuel-efficient, thanks to the A380 and forthcoming Dreamliner, and improvements in range has meant only one stopover on the way from Australia to Europe. But the journey still takes 22 to 23 hours. In nearly three decades, we’ve shaved only a few hours from the journey.

Decades of extraordinary innovation in passenger aviation, then, have come to an abrupt halt, in contrast to the speed at which technological innovation occurs in most fields. Back when I took my first flight, the movies were screened with those huge clunky projectors with the red, green and blue lightglobes. The image was almost unwatchably dim, and of course there was no choice. (It’s great to see this technology has been kept alive on some domestic Qantas flights, where everybody still has no choice but to love Raymond.) Now, we have personal video screens, and the advent of tablets has meant that some of us provide our own inflight entertainment.

Back when I got that first flight, telephone calls between Sydney and London were prohibitively expensive – ringing our Australian relatives was for birthdays and emergencies only. Now you can talk for free on Skype for as long as you want. And of course mobile phones were science fiction in 1985.

1985 was also the year that Marty McFly climbed into the DeLorean in Back To The Future, of course. It didn’t seem implausible in the sequel that we’d have flying cars by 2015. Where are they, exactly? Even flying skateboards would be a welcome improvement.

In computing, Moore’s Law stipulates that the number of microprocessors that you can fit on a chip will double every year. The corollary of this has been a doubling in the speed of computers every 18 months. Whereas aviation has gone backwards. When I was a kid, Concorde regularly flew between Europe and America, and sometimes even flew between Sydney and London, taking around 17 hours. But now, that’s no longer possible – Concorde has been retired. It’s too noisy – those of my vintage may remember hearing the sonic boom as it arrived in Sydney – and uneconomic to run given the small cabin size. But still, it’s extraordinary to think that commercial aviation was faster in the 1980s than it is today.

There are many reasons why it still takes nearly 24 hours to fly to London, and I won’t go into them here – let’s just say that it’s got more to do with economics than technology. But it’s important, because that number, the 24 hour number, is what makes living in Australia a challenge.

Australians become accustomed to distance. We’re one of the few peoples in the world who view a ten hour flight as short. And I’m sure that most of us have met people on our travels who say they’ve always wanted to visit Australia, but find the idea of that spending that long in a plane overwhelming. In other words, wusses. But still, it’s a reminder of just how far away we are.

Surely I’m not the only person who’s jealous of friends in London who can spend an hour or two in a plane and get anywhere in Europe, or friends in Singapore or Hong Kong who can nip down to Thailand for the weekend. In the rest of the world, or at least the parts of it where Australians are relatively likely to live, budget airlines have made international travel commonplace. Except perhaps for Western Australians, it’s simply not an option for us to go overseas for the weekend the way it would be if flying to Bali took, say, two hours from the East Coast.

But it’s not just leisure that we’re missing out on because of the lack of innovation in aviation. The greater loss is of people. With 1 million Australians living overseas at any given time, most of us have suffered from the expat drain. Whenever I flick through the contact list on my phone, I remember that dozens of people I care about still live abroad. I should probably delete them all, in fact, to teach them a lesson. Which they won’t learn, because they’ll be too busy catching EasyJet and Air Asia flights to the beach.

Facebook makes the loss seem all the more potent, bombarding us with a constant stream of overseas weddings and babies and holidays and lives, none of which we can easily participate in. And sure, we can visit sometimes, but flying for 24 hours is exhausting even without the jet lag.

If air travel had continued to become both faster and cheaper at the rate it had in the decades before I boarded that plane in 1985, and we could fly to London in four hours for $400, say, our lives would be different now. Those of us in Australia wouldn’t feel so cut off from the rest of the world, and from people we care about. We’d undoubtedly both have more incoming tourists, and travel overseas more ourselves. And more of us would probably go and live overseas if it was easier to return home.

Virgin Galactic is talking about doing the Sydney-London trip in four hours someday. Let’s hope they can manage that, and at an affordable cost, as unlikely as that currently seems. But in the meantime, all we can expect is incremental improvement and additional comfort. For the next few decades at least, we’ll remain a day and more than $2000 away from the rest of the world.

Perhaps it seems churlish to be disappointed by this – after all, getting from one side of the world to the other in 24 hours is still an miraculous thing, when you think about it. But I can’t help hoping that someday, I’ll be able to go to Europe or New York for the weekend almost as easily as I can now go to Melbourne. And the world will feel a great deal smaller.

What I’m saying is, the 2012 equivalent of Doc Emmett Brown needs to invent that flying car, and probably the flux capacitor into the bargain. Without a breakthrough of that order that dramatically changes the physics and economics of flight, we Australians will continue to experience the tyranny of distance.

1 thought on “24 hour plane people”

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