Article: Of Supersonic Travel and No Lost Baggage

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    by Ed Unrau

    In the 1962 cartoon, “The Jetsons”, George Jetson commutes to work in an aerocar that resembles a flying saucer with a transparent bubble top. And just a few short years later, in September, 1969, National Geographic published an article titled, “The Coming Revolution in Transportation,” written by Frederic C. Apell.  These 43-year-old predictions are a reminder that the world rarely unfolds in accordance with even the most thoughtful forecasts.

    SST Becomes Mainstream

    “The SST will become the major long-haul unit of personal transportation by the late 1980s.”

    That prediction was made by Alan S. Boyd, the first head of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Included in that same National Geographic article was this assertion that “within a decade airline passengers will flash across the sky at almost three times the speed of sound – and it is fervently to be hoped that they won’t find an aerial traffic jam at journey’s end.” The article described the test flights of the Concorde and the Soviet Union’s TU-144 in favourable terms. Also included was a reference to plans by Boeing to design an SST “that will carry 300.”

    Well, commercial supersonic travel has come and gone. The Concorde began its commercial service between the U.S. and Europe in 1976, a service that continued for 27 years until the Concorde fleet was retired in October 2003. The design and development of a viable second generation of SST aircraft was ultimately too expensive to service a limited number of “high-end” passengers. Today the Concorde aircraft survive as museum pieces.

    Airport Parking Abolished

    “A bus-like vehicle will pick up air passengers from downtown locations before driving to an urban helipad where a giant helicopter will lift the module from its wheels and fly it and its passengers to the airport where the module will be lowered onto another set of wheels so the passengers can be whisked to the departure area.”

    The author of that prediction was Igor Sikorsky, one of the world’s most famous helicopter designers. Although his idea was explored by the Budd Company of Philadelphia, a firm best known for its railway cars, the concept was never realized.

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    Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing

    “A family of aircraft called V/STOL will alleviate air travel congestion, particularly by increasing airport capacity.”

    V/STOL – vertical or short take-off and landing – is also unrealized. V/STOL aircraft found their most successful application in military aviation and not at all in commercial or civilian applications. The 1969 vision was that V/STOL craft “can help alleviate aerial traffic jams by using separate, shorter runways or smaller airports nearer town.”

    Baggage Claim Heaven

    “Deplaning passengers will no longer crowd around baggage carousels, but will instead go to a receiving station – perhaps the parking lot – and insert their coded baggage checks into a slot and wait until a central computer sends their baggage to that location.”

    The 1969 article envisaged moving baggage on carts “powered by an ingenious new device called a linear induction electro motor.” The concept called for a network of induction tracks throughout an airport so that the baggage could be sent to multiple points throughout the complex. Even with modern computer technology and advances in electrical engineering, this concept would still be a challenge.

    Transportation Hubs

    The Geographic’s vision for airport physical design was somewhat Jetson-y. The article painted a vision of an integrated hub linking automobile, rail, water, and air transport. The article said “as a hydrofoil scoots upriver, an air-cushion vehicle takes on fares, and trains roll in and out. An automated highway rushes traffic along computer-controlled routes; tubes whisk ‘people capsules’ between terminals and the city.”  Elsewhere in the article a city planner unveiled “a proposed underground air terminal for Los Angeles, “where telescoping legs would raise departure lounges from their subsurface locations to waiting aircraft.”

    The article also made predictions about aircraft size which have largely been unfulfilled, for example regular use of passenger aircraft with capacities of more than 1,000 people. These larger passenger aircraft – configured to include “staterooms, conference rooms, and movie theatres” – were described as promising “greater comfort” and “eventually bring lower fares.”

    One prediction from the 1969 article did come to fruition, but only because of the emergence of another technology – the internet. The article predicted in a photo caption that automated ticketing and seat reservation services would speed passenger processing. The internet provides ticketing and seating services as well as other features not envisaged in 1969.

    It is, however, worth noting that a year later the November 1970 edition of National Geographic published an article, “Behold the Computer Revolution.” In contrast to the predictions for air transportation, the magazine made predictions that were all fulfilled and raised issues that are still current. The only thing the magazine article did not foresee was the advent of desktop computing and the application of computer chip technology.


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