One way to summarise aviation history is to trace two eras of development. Era 1 was about invention and technology; flight itself, all-metal structures, pressurisation and jets made for useful range, payload and speed. Era 2 has been marked by politics; starting with deregulation in the 1970s, rising wealth and the post-Cold War flourishing of international trade transformed air travel from luxury to commodity.
Era 2 has seen technological innovations, but these have been incremental, not revolutionary. It is by commerce, not gadgets, that we come to the dawn of Era 3.
This is characterised not by new opportunities, but by a daunting new challenge. In short, runways are full, airspace is full and yet, all forecasts predict an endlessly rising call for more seats on more flights.
One approach to Era 3 is economic: raise flight taxes sharply to dampen demand. This could be effective – environmentalists would add “necessary” – but seems unlikely in today’s political environment.
A second leans on technology. Sophisticated air traffic control and novel solutions such as an inter-airport Hyperloop link proposed in the Netherlands might keep the system flowing a little longer. Alas, such schemes recall the standard – but obviously flawed – response to road traffic congestion: adding another lane.
The smart money will be on a third approach. Carry on tinkering at the edges and learn to live with it.