I have always been fascinated by transformational moments in history. These moments are unpredictable. They are often terrible. They always change things in some fundamentally important way we could never foresee. This is not the article I planned to write today. Like most of us, everything has changed about my daily routine in the last few weeks.
I feel a sense of purpose in our country today. Government and communities seem to be working together. Everyone is concerned, but at the same time careful and methodical. Yes, some very bad things are happening every day. However, I am also seeing the beginnings of the kind of team effort I have only heard about from my parents’ generation. We have not yet seen victory gardens, but we have seen volunteer seamstresses helping create face masks to prevent hospital shortages. Big name automobile manufacturers have begun the process of fabricating ventilator equipment for critically ill patients. Restaurants, grocery stores and pharmacies are upping their game with creative new ideas. Some are offering “no contact” delivery to protect against inadvertent spread of the infection. You order what you need online, pay for it with your credit card, and it shows up on your doorstep.
I especially like the creativity in routine medical care. Doctors are now scheduling “tele” medicine visits for routine conditions more than ever before. We are no longer required to drive to the office and fill out painfully redundant medical forms. Instead, we fill in our information online, using a standardized “patient portal.” Check in can be done from a cell phone. If a physical visit is necessary, we can wait in the car for a text message before going into the office. This is more convenient and safer for both patient and provider. Please also note that it also reduces costs, improves patient experience, reduces automobile traffic, and prevents pollution. Makes you wonder why we didn’t do this a lot sooner.
Many of these new business practices will be around long after the virus has gone away. This will be a good thing. These changes are born out of necessity during a time of crisis. However, in the process we are learning newer more efficient ways to do things.
This is a transformational moment for air travel as well. Things are changing every day in ways we could have never foreseen. Rather than talking about congestion and delays, we are now talking about how many flights have been cut. Most of these flights have very few passengers. International travel is all but gone. For those of us that have spent years in the air travel business, this is very hard to watch.
All transformational moments bring both good and bad. No one would have wished to go through this, but now that we are here, we need to learn from it. The number of airline flights is dropping dramatically. However, they will go back up again soon. When they do, there will be a huge pent up demand for travel. This travel will not only include passengers, but unmanned vehicles as well. The problems of air traffic delays and congestion have not gone away. They are only on hold long enough to give us time to think about them. We need to take this time to do what FAA and IBM did in the sixties, when they developed the NAS EnRoute system.
This begins with a definition of the problem, without making any assumptions about who owns the problem or how it should be solved. Is the problem really that airspace and airports are full? Probably not.
On any given day, before the virus, there were about 40,000 flights in the United States. There are about 30 major airports and dozens of smaller airports. These airports and flights are spread out across almost 4 million square miles, and they don’t all fly at the same time. So it is not really a question of too many airplanes. It is a question of them being in the right place at the right time.
Only after we have defined the actual problem, can we decide who owns it. Is it a safety problem or a management problem? What exactly is it that needs to be managed? Is it on-time performance by airlines, environmental impact, passenger experience, or all of the above?
Air traffic is dropping now. Very soon it will be rising again. This transformational moment gives us an opportunity to rethink the process of managing it. This is an opportunity for our industry, like so many others in America, to go back to basics and think about how we can do a better job.
Restaurants have had to rethink their entire business. They have done so in a matter of days. Doctor’s offices, hardware stores, auto parts stores and many of others have done it too. Can the air travel industry step up to the plate?
The air travel industry is too important to let this opportunity slip by.