travel issues old people

Can revisting some old assumptions help shape the future of longhaul travel?

(First published September 14, 2013 and Updated)

A lot of people like to travel and some like to travel far and wide. Take older people for example. Some of them like to travel so much that they sell their homes and buy mobile ones and spend their lives travelling slowly from place to place. In America they call them snow birds.  Traditionally they travel south in the winter en mass to places such as Florida and Arizona.

But I am not old, and I like to travel. In fact I love travelling. But what I do not like are long – longhaul trips. What I am talking about her is anything over 10 hours or so without a proper break – i.e. bed, shower and proper meal where I can extend my elbows more than 2 inches without bumping into the person next to me.

A snowbird

A snowbird relaxing

My parents live in Australia, and they like to travel.  My father emigrated from England as a child with his parents shortly after the second world war. The journey to Australia, by flying boat, is one of the most vivid memories he has. He flew with an airline which was to become British Airways in later years.

Now it is well known that flying in those days was an altogether different proposition and that it is now routine. Dad describes the flying boat as an old crate and said that his ears used to ring for hours every night when they had stopped for the overnight rest. For the last fifty years or so we have had reliable means to travel from one side of the planet to the other pretty quickly. For a machine it is easy. For our bodies, it is quite demanding. Technology has  evolved but our bodies are the same.

So would they now prefer a journey to or from Australia which takes a few days or a journey which takes 26 hours virtually non-stop?

Lets look at the historic journey. He describes it as an adventure. The great flying boat took off on the water from the harbour in Southampton and then made its way South and East stopping at the far flung corners of the earth for fuel and rest. Places with romantic names and which are still far flung and remote even today. The aircraft was much slower than today and they stopped to rest in the evening. Eventually arriving at Singapore, then a colonial outpost, they stayed overnight at Raffles. Some 30 years later he took me there. I was too young to appreciate it I think. Their journey must have cost a small fortune and would cost even more today.

The plane had been in service in the war and was by then pretty knackered. It broke down at least once and it was very noisy and vibrated. No doubt due to the lower cruising altitude it would have been a bumpy ride. But their journey was fast at the time. It was much much faster than the alternative journey by boat which took over a month.

But for the last 40 years the speed of air travel has plateaued. The Boeing 747 is still one of the the fastest commercial planes in the air and Concord, never something for the mass market, has come and gone, utterly failing to revolutionanise long haul travel. There are no serious contenders on the horizon to do so.

So long haul travel will not get any faster any time soon.

This is an important fact to grasp as I think there is an underlying assumption that progress means more speed and shorter more comfortable journey times, and this is not true.  Regardless of this, we still have this idea that one day we should be able to get anywhere in a few hours and that we are somehow working towards it.

Long distance air travel has gone from being the prevail of the lucky few, to a mass market industry. Comfort levels have both improved and worsened. Personal space and comfort for most passengers has reduced. If you are doing longhaul in economy it is something of an ordeal.

We, the passenger, just want to get wherever we are going in one piece and as comfortably as possible. We are not looking forward to the jet lag.

It is difficult to stretch your legs or arms and any movement is greatly restricted for fear of disturbing the persons next, in front or behind you. You are permitted toilet breaks.  The aircraft is usually only pressurized to around 8000 ft* and the air is constantly filtered and recycled. Breaks at airports are made for operational reasons, not so the passengers can get out and stretch their legs and have a coffee.

By the time you arrive at your destination, you are thoroughly disorientated, often in pain, unwashed  (& unshaven), possibly constapated, feet swollen, body clock set for a different time zone, and with a nice chunky cough that you picked up in the cabin. Congratulations! You have just crossed the planet in a day.

With this mindset, have we have lost the pleasure of the journey, and does it necessarily have to be so?

cramped airline seats

Love that middle seat

Speed is good, and there is probably no point in hanging about in the air, unless you are flying in some sort of retro -futuristic giant luxury zeppelin casually making its way from city to city while its passengers sip cocktails and enjoy the view. And I can in my minds eye see flocks of snow birds travelling round in giant zeppelins, but there isn’t always the need for the great haste in traveling long distances that we have become conditioned to. We are not all business types flying urgently from one mega meeting to another, nor are we rock stars sipping Crystal in first so getting somewhere in good shape is for many of us more important than getting somewhere quickly. When you realise that you spend the next two days after any longhaul flight in recovery mode, it becomes more apparent what a false economy saving time in the journey really is.

So, my argument is that it may be often be advantageous to spend 48 -56 hours traveling from Australia to Europe and to break up the journey into separate flights with a day or so break in between. It is possible to do this already of course, but it is not available, and more importantly organised, as a matter of routine for a comparable cost to the direct, rushed journey.

What could such a leasurely trip look like and what could it cost?

The problem is with current booked stop-overs is that they make the cost of the trip so much more. But I don’t think it needs  to cost the passenger much more, and there would be a advantages for the airline and partner hotels.  So, let us take a hypothetical Mr. and Mrs. Dursley. They are both 73 and want fly out to Sydney to see their son’s new child – Bruce.

They book a return trip from London to Sydney. On boarding their flight they are sandwiched into their economy seats. They arrange themselves as best as they can and put on their complimentary soft socks.

They have their complimentary gin and tonic and commence watching the screens directly in front of them. They have several meals and being wise people they get up several times to stretch their legs and wiggle their toes. Mrs. Dursley has a mild back condition from too much lifting of patients when she was a nurse and finds sitting for too long uncomfortable. She can cope with about 8 hours though and at Abu-Dhabi they have their first break in an Airport hotel, at £40 inclusive of one meal they thought it very reasonable. They have about 20 hours between transits 24 so they do decide to have a look about town, but another couple they met on the plane, the Potters, simply stay in the hotel and rest.

The next day they board their flight looking forward to stopping in Singapore. In Singapore they decide to make a night of it, but still have time to relax and recuperate.  He is pretty chuffed about this and enjoys his night out. They aren’t loaded but they have a few drinks and an extra meal in the hotel and Mrs. Dursley treats herself to a foot massage in the hotel spa.

The next day they board their flight to Australia and arrive eight hours later in good spirits with two new friends. They cannot praise enough the journey they have just made. They loved it, and they love the airline for thinking of them and providing such a thoughtful service at such a good price.

Recently,  Singapore Airlines in partnership with Changi Airport have launched a stop-over in Singapore for about £27 GBP ($59 Singapore dollars). So, it would seem that at least one airline sees this approach as viable.

So what would be involved in providing such a service, at very little extra initial cost to the passenger. What would be the potential advantages for the airline?

Lets look at what can happen already…

I have flown back from Australia to the UK on Korean Air. I have to say it was very pleasant. The plane was an old 747 but one of the advantages of old planes is that they frequently have wider seats and more leg room. The service was good.  On the return journey a stop-over in Seoul was compulsory. The plane simply stopped there overnight. Why? I am not entirely sure, but I think it is because that is where Korean Air’s hub is and the plane was there to be refueled restocked and re-crewed. The passengers were put up overnight in the Airport Hilton and given a voucher for dinner. Dinner was nice, but of course, was a restricted menu of rather less lavish food than generally on offer. I went to the bar and had a few drinks and then went to bed, in a real bed. The next day I went out of the airport and went shopping.

Shopping was an experience as the large shopping mall next to the airport was, I think, in the process of being constructed. I wasn’t sure whether it was open or not, whole floors were largely vacant but had a few shops open and trading. The building was largely deserted.

I specifically chose to fly with Korean Air because of their mandatory but free stop-over. I chose to journey this way so I would be in better condition when arriving back in the UK and it worked. I was less tired and had virtually no jet lag, and I have also have the memory of a slightly bizarre shopping trip.

I think that there could be room for providing for people who want to make their way from A to B in a more leisurely way. I am sure that airport and other hotels are not fully booked all the time and passengers like my parents and me for that matter could help fill the gaps, adding to the bottom line for airlines hotels and stop-over destinations.  There is an opportunity to bring back the journey as part of the adventure, for the ordinary punter, rather than something to endure and to get over with.

[note * The latest generation (787 Dreamliner) to 6,000 ft.]