Netflix has an excellent period drama called Victoria on the life of the iconic queen of England who ruled for 63 years and married off her progeny into most of the royal families of Europe. She died in 1901 aged 81. Throughout her life, she moved around in luxury carriages drawn by horses. Steam trains and iron-hulled ships occasionally took her and her entourage further afield but it was the stables that did most of the heavy lifting.
She was in her late sixties when the first motor car appeared in Germany but did not live to see the mass production of cars or the first powered flight (1903) but she did have a few photographs taken.
Skip just 100 years and there are websites that track air traffic so you can follow the travel of your own flight or that of a loved one across the vast reaches of land and sea to every far-flung destination on the planet. Browse one of these sites and the globe lights up with traces. There are a million people in the air at any one time.
Amused or not, Queen Victoria would not have believed it was possible.
Here is an Alloporus thought on air traffic from June 2011
In 2009 2.5 billion journeys were taken in aircraft.
Evened out across the global population, every third person on earth took a flight. In reality it is the wealthiest proportion of the 1 billion people in western economies who took most of the journeys.
The projection is that by 2014 there will be 3.3 billion journeys taken.
This represents a 32% increase in 5 years.
Mobility is an inevitable consequence of affluence. As more and more people have disposable income, many will want to use some of those funds to travel. As economies grow, more business is done and so travel to buy, sell and negotiate also increases.
In the mid 1960’s the first Boeing 737s carried 100 passengers up to 2775 km. This was quite a revolution at the time.
The latest Boeing 737-800s carry twice the number of people over 5,500 km and use 23% less fuel.
Suppose it were possible to replace all the aircraft flying in 2009 with the latest fuel efficient models. It would be possible to absorb almost all of the 5 year increase in passenger volume to 2014 through fuel efficiencies that these more efficient vehicles bring.
Future aircraft construction materials that are lighter and still strong enough will see even greater fuel efficiencies. Aircraft built in the next decade or two might only use a third of the fuel guzzled by the earliest models.
Replace all the 737-800s with aircraft of composite material designs and 13 years of growth in passenger numbers could be accommodated without increasing fuel use above that used in 2009.
But even if all these replacements were possible by the mid-2020s, less than a generation from now, fuel use in air travel would begin to increase over 2009 levels.
In half the time since those first Boeing 737 aircraft began flying all the fuel efficiencies would have been used up by the increased volume of traffic.
Clearly instant replacement with the best technology is impossible.
Some of those fuel hungry early models are still in the air on the more remote routes operated by obscure airlines. And it is these cheaper fare options that will be responsible for much of the growth in passenger numbers. The fuel efficiencies will arrive incrementally.
In the absence of some remarkable technology that can replace jet engines running on aviation fuel, greenhouse gas emissions from or air travel will grow along with the airline industry.
There is talk of a jet-rocket vehicle that would travel in the stratosphere, have no emissions because it flies above the atmosphere on hydrogen fuel and could reduce the travel time from Sydney to London to a few hours. Commercial flights might happen by 2040.
By then there will be close to 10 billion journeys per year.
Turns out there were 3.1 billion journeys in 2014, a little down on projections, but not by much. Dreamliners notwithstanding, the fuel consumption numbers are still up there as is the prospect of Tesla rockets.
There is no obvious solution to the emissions issue. Aircraft are going to continue flying passengers and freight, we are now over 100,000 flights per day, and the fleet still runs on aviation fuel.
In China alone, the expectation is that over 800 million people will join the ‘middle class’ meaning that there are going to be plenty of bums to put on all the seats. A GFC 2.0 or nuclear confrontation might slow things down but in the short term, there will be journeys taken and plenty of them.
The scale of all this is very difficult to comprehend. Numbers like this only come up when we are buying a house. Volume is an issue but the kicker is the rate of change. Horse-drawn carriages to 100,000 flights a day in 100 years is staggeringly rapid, even for a planet that is no stranger to the odd dramatic shift in fortunes.
‘Journeys’ was a post about emissions to highlight how significant they were going to be in the near future. The real message is to think about the rate of inevitable change. Those aircraft are here for their productive lifetime. They will fly as long as they can be operated at a profit. The fleet is added to rather than replaced and more flights are taken. More this year than last and more than the year before that. This is change that is fast and locked in. There is no reason, bar catastrophe, to suggest otherwise.
I don’t think we really understand what this means.
Queen Victoria would not have believed a word of it and I am not sure that we do either.