If there is one thing which citydwellers in the USA are thanking e-commerce for, it's the opportunity to take their businesses with them back to the countryside. The Internet, after all, will allow individuals to operate a business and create wealth wherever they choose. Aviation will, however, be the ultimate answer to their prayers.

For if the explosion in e-commerce means high demand for the fast delivery of goods purchased over the Internet, then this will drive the demand for express freight. Speed is the key to e-commerce, and aviation is the key to speed.

So for the new breed of rural entrepreneur, e-commerce may mean they will no longer be tied to major industrial conurbations and transportation hubs - but they will still have to travel and, particularly, rely on an effective distribution network for their goods. And that creates demand for air service from smaller communities that are now only served by the airline hub-and-spoke system.

With US demographic experts foreseeing a "third wave" of migration from the suburbs back to rural America, the US Federal Aviation Administration and NASA have launched a plan to begin defining the "airspace system after next" - the air transportation system that will need to be in place by the middle of this century. The impact of e-commerce is a central theme in the project. The Administration does not believe that efforts now under way to improve the capacity and efficiency of the hub-and-spoke air transport system will be enough to meet an explosion in demand for unfettered air travel around the country in less than 20 years from now.

As a result, planning will concentrate on an integrated future air transport system that will combine commercial aviation with personal jets, runway-independent aircraft, unmanned cargo air vehicles, even space transports.

Already NASA has announced plans to demonstrate technology for a small aircraft transportation system that would link the USA's 5,000 smaller airports using cheap and easy to fly personal aircraft. Air travellers would be able to rent a jet at their local airfield, or call an air taxi to take them to their destination.

This week a new company, Eclipse Aviation, will take the wraps off just such an aircraft, the Eclipse 500 personal jet. Offering automotive levels of style and comfort, the aircraft is envisaged as the basis for an air limousine service that would provide a cost-competitive alternative to the airlines for shorter flights between smaller airports. Eclipse says it can envisage seeing its aircraft being used for such a service by offering passengers a cost per seat kilometre for 400-1,800km (220-970nm) trips that is less than the equivalent airline walk-up fare.

But e-commerce is also revolutionising the aerospace industry. Almost daily, a new aerospace business-to-business e-commerce portal is unveiled as traditional manufacturing and distribution companies race to keep pace with the economic revolution being wrought by the Internet.

Today, the Internet is a threat to aerospace. It draws investment and talent away from the industry, which cannot match the stock performance of the soaring, if inherently unstable, dot.coms. E-commerce threatens the cosy supplier relationships that are the bedrock of the industry by putting almost unlimited information (and power) in the hands of the customer.

But long term, e-commerce will not thrive unless the speed with which goods can be distributed approaches the speed with which consumers can make on-line buying decisions. In the absence of a Star Trek-style transporter, aviation holds the key.

Forget hub-and-spoke. In future, if you want to guarantee next-day delivery of your home-cooked goodies, take them down to the express air freight terminal at your local airfield. Or rent a jet and fly them to the customers yourself.

It is a vision, if realised, that could yet make aviation as hot an investment property as any dot.com.

Source: Flight International