A brief history of the future: Flying villages and space spas by Roger Collis.

Airborne between Paris and Hong Kong on a Global Airlines Boeing 2000ER, John and Jane Harbinger are lingering over lunch in the gourmet restaurant on the top deck (not much point in fast food on a 16-hour flight) figuring how they’re going to spend the rest of the afternoon. Jane decides on a soothing séance in the beauty parlor: John will make a few calls from the business center and polish his presentation. They’ll meet for drinks at six in the suite before dinner. ‘Would sushi hit the spot? I’ll book a table downstairs.’ John asks a passing ‘skycop’ for directions. ‘Head down the main corridor towards the tail and take the elevator down to the bottom deck.’

Planes such as this three-deck 1,000-seat Goliath – which entered service in 2025 – are derived from the 600-seat super jumbo A380 introduced by Airbus in 2007. They are flying villages, allowing infinite scope for social congress, with half a dozen restaurant concessions – from classical French to McDonalds’– casinos, shops, cyber-cafes with Internet access, and health clubs. About the only things missing are a pool and an outside jogging track. But you never know!

There is no such thing these days as first, business or economy class. The price you pay depends on your choice of seating, cuisine and entertainment along with the kind of service you want on the ground. Accommodation ranges from standard cattle class and ergonomic sleeper seats with more personal space to air-conditioned cabins with beds, bathroom and butler service, that convert to a daytime lounge. For an extra charge, the airline will deliver a container to your home or office, transport you through the airport and load you onto the plan. Some tycoons have converted their offices into flight containers, re-creating the private railroad cars of a century ago – the ultimate in seamless travel.

Many people travel ‘a la carte.’ You book a seat or cabin and pay extra for meals and in-flight facilities and lounges, limos and other trimmings on the ground. Traveling cattle class is no longer much of an ordeal. You only have to stay in your seat for take-off and landing; the rest of the time you can move around freely. Skycops patrol the crowded aisles ready to deal with unruly or abusive passengers who can threaten not only the well being of other passengers but the safety of the aircraft. After all, on a long-haul flight you can be in the air for up to 18 hours – almost long enough to get married, start a family and get divorced, although not necessarily in that order. Some enterprising agents are using reservations computers to help people choose in-flight companions. They punch in your high-altitude likes and dislikes and match you up with a suitable seatmate.

Global Airlines is one of three mega-carriers that together share 80 percent of the world air travel market – the culmination of the giant airline alliances and code-sharing deals that carved up the skies in the late 1990s. These compete with consortia of regional airlines in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, along with half a dozen long-haul carriers mainly serving the business market.

Code sharing, whereby two or more airlines operate the same flight, and ‘block seat’ arrangements, whereby one airline sells seats on another airline’s flights, became commonplace by 2000. The abundance of space on the superjumbos allowed several airlines to share the same plane with their own fares, flight attendants, in-flight cuisine and service.

This led to the concept of the ‘virtual’ airline. You don’t need to own aircraft and infrastructure when you can ‘brand’ your own cabin in a superjumbo. Travel agents can buy blocks of seats (and hotel rooms) and market them under their own brands to corporate customers.

Since 1999, superjumbos – along with advanced technology for better control of the airways with new satellite navigation systems and new airports and terminals – have diminished the specter of gridlock in the skies by quadrupling air traffic capacity since 1999. But the challenge was daunting. Since 1999, air traffic has been growing at around 10 percent a year.

Thus the number of passengers has doubled every seven years, reaching a staggering 20 billion in 2020. Where are all these people going? And, more to the point, why do they all seem to be going with me?

The growth of tourism in China has been phenomenal. The Chinese government set the ball rolling when it cut the working week to five days, giving the nation’s workers an extra half-day off a week.

This was even better news for the travel trade, because – assuming a workforce of 750 million from a total population of 1.2 billion – it meant an extra 15 billion days’ leisure time coming on stream. And with more disposable income and the liberalization of passports, the Chinese have become international travelers.

According to the World Tourism Organization, China now generates more out-bound tourism than any country in the world apart from Japan, Germany and the United States. China has also become the world’s top tourist destination with 137 million visitors in 2020.

The world’s top 30 airports will handle more than 16 billion passengers this year. The traditional mega-hubs such as Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, Atlanta, London Heathrow, Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok and Singapore’s Changi are bursting at the seams, each handling around 200 million passengers a year. But an airport building boom, especially in Asia, has added capacity. China has built more than 50 new airports since 1999.

Meanwhile, the creation of ‘wayports,’ or new hubs, in remote parts of Norway and Siberia has siphoned off a large amount of connecting traffic. More than 30 percent of the people milling around Heathrow, for example, were simply trying to get somewhere else.

Supersonic travel has become space age with Orbitol, a 50-passenger space plane that travels in low earth orbit enabling it to fly from London to Sydney in 45 minutes. Unlike the old space shuttles, Orbitol takes off and lands under its own power. After accelerating through Mach 5 to 80, 000 feet, the plane leaves the atmosphere, continues to accelerate and becomes a satellite itself after reaching 250,000 feet – around four times the cruising altitude of Concorde – with an orbital velocity of Mach 25 to 30.

More down to earth, high-speed maglev (magnetically levitated) trains traveling at 300 miles per hour have replaced air travel on journeys of up to 500 miles, releasing slots at major airports, most of which have train stations, for long-haul traffic.

Regional airlines serve ‘thinner routes,’ enabling business travelers to avoid mega-hubs. Thus ‘regional long-haul’ services allow travelers to fly point-to-point between cities such as Manchester and Osaka, Seattle and Perth, Stuttgart and San Francisco.

Mega-hubs, with a larger daily population than many major cities, are no longer a means to an end but an end in itself, destinations in their own right. They form a worldwide network of alternative cities – what you might call the terrestrial equivalent of space stations – with their own business communities and civic amenities, hotels and conference centers. Who needs to go downtown when you are already there? Many people don’t travel to cities any more, just to airports.

John Harbinger, on-line to his office in Broken Springs, Colorado, asks himself a routine question: whether he really needed to make this trip.

Technology enables (and requires) him to be totally wired at all times. The No. 1 rule for business travelers is wherever you are, always to be on the phone to somewhere else. So why travel? John rationalizes that this is a working vacation – a chance to bring Jane along. He’s looking forward to a round of golf with his Chinese associates. And he and Jane plan to take off for a five-day airship cruise among the Hong Kong islands.

Modern airships are safe, comfortable, and environmentally friendly, as they sail and hover less than 100 feet above the ground. An airship cruise is a spectacular way to see many wonders of the world, such as the Amazon and what’s left of the rain forests in Brazil and Peru, chateaux of the Loire, fly along the Nile to see the pyramids, explore Venice or make an air safari in Kenya.

‘Virtual conferencing,’ has done away with the need for many business trips. A 100-inch (256 centimeter) illuminated high-resolution screen with ‘wrap-around’ sound makes everyone seem life-like and gives the illusion that you’re in the same room. This means that you can participate normally in the discussion; using the same body language.

Travel was in danger of becoming an end in itself. I am therefore I travel: I travel therefore I am. Travel is about human interaction, hands-on experience. Getting the best return on your ‘interaction expense’ is a trade-off between cost in terms of time, money and hassle and the opportunity of staying doing something more productive somewhere else.

Of course, there’s sometimes a need to be somewhere in person – the eye contact, the real, compared to the cybernetic, handshake, the impromptu meeting and, of course, the social dimension can be pure gold. It is not something you can quantify; it’s intuitive, gut feeling. Who goes to a conference to listen to the speakers? You can pick up a transcript or receive it live in your office. It’s real-time networking that counts.

In the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Homeric hero, Ulysses, back in 1842:

‘I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where thro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.’

But business travel is less poetic and a good deal less sentimental. Which is why John Harbinger makes fewer trips these days. This excursion with Jane is a fairly rare experience in real-time reality. Like most other road warriors, John embraces the new ‘travel avoidance’ technology, such as virtual conferencing and virtual meetings in real or ‘displaced’ time, with chiliastic zeal.

The technology is rooted in voice recognition software developed back in the late 90s that enabled you to call a computer from anywhere in the world, check your e-mail your voice-mail and faxes, either by computer or through the telephone. You could convert them from voice to text, or vice versa, and re-direct them by any medium.

Recent advances in artificial intelligence make it possible to hold an open-ended discussion through a computer. The machine not only understands the meaning of what you say but replies to you in a normal voice – which might be the digitalized voice of a real person.

John Harbinger, along with his colleagues, has had his voice ‘digitalized’ and stored on-line. Early computer-generated voices sounded robotic because words were mechanically strung together into sentences, thereby losing the rhythm of the dialogue; whereas digitalized voices are produced by recording entire sentences, then shoehorning in numbers and letters of the alphabet.

Voices are recorded in three ways. If you say the number nine, for instance, at the beginning of a word, it sounds different from if you say it in the middle or the end. The same applies to words and phrases.

It’s hard to detect a digitalized voice in displaced time from a real voice in real time. Meetings can thus be conducted in real or displaced time. You program your responses, to say, a budget meeting, in advance and your digitalized voice conducts a dialogue on your behalf. Cognitive programs are being designed whereby John can participate vicariously at several meetings while he is away. It beats the old way of having answering machines talk to one another, or batting e-mails back and forth, communication lost in fruitless volleys of non sequiturs.

Back in their suite, the Harbingers are mentally packing their bags for an ‘out of this world’ space vacation. They have been armchair astronauts for years and are looking forward to five days in a Disney Space Resort 300 miles above Earth. They will take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in a NASA space shuttle adapted to carry 40 tourists, experiencing weightless for about 15 minutes.

The resort accommodates 300 people in cruise-ship luxury. It takes an hour and a half to make a complete orbit of the Earth, spinning like a roulette wheel at about one revolution a minute, thus developing artificial gravity.

You stay in an outer ring, where you experience about half of normal gravity – just about half your normal weight – so you can use bathroom facilities and such at practically normal conditions. A central column section has zero gravity. This is the entertainment and recreation center, which guests can visit for an hour or so at a time. There are windows in the central column to view the Earth.

There are lots of entertainment possibilities at zero gravity, including a gym with padded walls. Astronauts have found that blood that is normally drawn down to your legs is released and drifts upwards. You become thinner, your chest expands by two to three inches, your face fills out and wrinkles disappear.

While Jane muses about a second honeymoon in space, John is thinking about the final frontier in space travel – to experience Einstein’s paradox of relativity, that if you travel faster than the speed of light, you are younger when you get back than when you left.

Daunting implications for tomorrow’s road warriors.

Roger Collis - www.rogercollis.co.uk