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Air vs. Overheads

overhead-binsSolving the overhead bins problem may take some airlines a decade, reports Scott McCartney in The Wall Street Journal (6/25/15). For many airlines, the problem is of their own making. By cutting the number of flights to fill more planes to capacity they made it impossible for some passengers to bring bags on board. A Boeing 737-900, for instance, “has about 180 seats” but only enough bin space for 125 carry-on bags. Charging fees for checked bags further compounds the problem, as it motivates passengers to use carry-ons instead. Some note that airlines may have this backwards. “We give away the most valuable space on the airplane — the overhead bin — and we charge for the least expensive space — in the belly,” says David Cush, CEO of Virgin America, which has no plans to change its policy.

Southwest has taken a different approach to solving the problem; it simply doesn’t charge for checked bags, which tends to reduce the number of carry-ons. The airline’s bins also accommodate carry-ons that are “2 inches longer, 2 inches wider and 1 inch deeper than American, Delta and United.” Southwest reports that this “makes it more attractive to travelers, and revenue from extra passengers exceeds potential bag-fee revenue.” Passengers on Spirit Airlines, on the other hand, must pay more for carry-ons ($35) than checked ($30) bags. Those rates go up to $55 and $50, respectively, at the airport. This also reduces the number of carry-ons, and Spirit says it also has improved its record of on-time departures because “flight attendants aren’t frantically checking bags that don’t fit.”

Delta’s possible solution is a valet service that has “airline staff load passengers’ carry-on bags,” on the theory that they can do so faster “and with less wasted space” than passengers. Boeing, meanwhile, is working on “a new bin design … with a bin that pivots up into the ceiling rather than being a fixed cabinet.” New planes can also be ordered with so-called “space bins that are large enough to turn roll-aboard bags on their side instead of lying them flat. That means six bags in each 60-inch long bin instead of four.” Then there’s the Air Transport Association, which proposes “worldwide guidelines that would shrink maximum carry-on sizes by about 21%.” This would force travelers either to buy new bags or pay to check their existing ones — either way paying “to solve a problem airlines created.”

Airplane Windows

airbusThe airplane of the future will have no windows, reports The Economist (5/30/15). Instead, it will have exterior cameras that will project the scene from outside the airplane on a “thin-screen video display on either side of the passenger compartment.” If the scene is nothing but clouds or stars, the screens could be used to show movies. This “multiplex digital cabin” is expected to be available in 2020 in the S-512 via Spike Aerospace, which “could carry 12-18 passengers from, say, LA to Tokyo in just six hours, at Mach 1.6.

By 2050, Airbus envisions a “bionic cabin covered with … a ‘biopolymer membrane,’ a sort of tough plastic coating which can be electronically controlled to turn opaque or transparent on command, thus eliminating the need for conventional windows.” So, as the plane descends into New York, for instance, “the ceiling and walls turn transparent to provide a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline.” When opaque, the walls could mimic sunrises and sunsets to help passengers adjust as they change time zones.

Meanwhile, “rigid divisions into first, business and economy classes” will have disappeared, replaced with “transforming seats” constructed of “memory materials which can morph into different shapes,” adapting “to the size of an individual’s body — and their travel budget. The more you pay, the more space and comfort the seat will provide.” Of course, whether any of this actually ever happens “depends … as much on the unforgiving economics of air travel as on the imagination of designers.”

Oil & Whiskey

dropKentucky’s distilleries could teach the oil industry an important lesson, reports Neil Irwin in The New York Times (11/18/14). The two businesses are signficantly similar: Both products require long lead times and neither can predict future demand. With oil, it’s that it takes years of constructing drilling project "before the crude begins to flow." With bourbon it’s "because a distiller must keep the good stuff in barrels for seven, 10 or even 20 years before it’s ready to drink." This leads to the "boom-and-bust" cycles that afflict both industries.

The reason oil prices are dropping today is that high demand in the last decade triggered investments in exploration that are now creating excess supply. The opposite is happening with bourbon, which has become "the buzzy distilled spirit" over the past ten years, but distillers had no way of foreseeing this. "In 2002, we would have been making Buffalo Trace to be sold in 2011," says Mark Brown, CEO of Buffalo Trace Distillery. "There was absolutely no indication that demand would have reached the levels it reached."

The difference is in how the two industries respond. The oil industry simply adjusts its prices, as Economics 101 would suggest. Unfortunately, doing so raises consumer incentives to "invest in efficiency and alternative energy sources," which works against the oil industry’s interests, long-term. Bourbon makers, meanwhile, hold prices steady regardless of supply and demand. It’s a bet "that there is more money to be made in the long run by cultivating a new generation of bourbon drinkers," while also "building loyalty among customers."

Phantom Drones

phantom-droneA Chinese company is producing the "Model T" of drones, report Jack Nicas and Colum Murphy in The Wall Street Journal (11/11/14). "Back in the day, you could talk about cars, but pretty much every car on the road was one of the Model Ts," says Matt Waite of University of Nebraska, drawing the parallel. The ‘Model T’ of camera-equipped drones, popularly known as the Phantom, is made by Shenzhen-based SZ DJI Technology, which is "selling thousands of its 2.8-pound, square-foot devices for about $1,000 each."

This not only makes DJI "the world’s biggest drone maker by revenue," but also "the first Chinese brand to pioneer a major new global consumer product category." The Phantoms are attracting all kinds of interest, having "garnered fans for their aerial footage of extreme sports, fireworks and Niagara Falls, and famous users," including Steve Wozniak, Jamie Foxx and Martha Stewart. They are being used "in filmmaking, farming and construction — all in defiance of the FAA’s effective moratorium on commercial drones."

Founded in a university dorm room in 2006 by Frank Wang, DJI had "90 employees and $4.2 million in revenue in 2011." It now has 2,800 employees, three factories, and this year expects to post sales three to five times greater than in 2013, when it posted $130 million in revenue. This has led to growing pains, including lawsuits and customer-service issues. "Their innovation rose them to the top very quickly,’ says Stephen Burtt, CEO of Aerial Technology, a drone retailer. "But then it was: ‘Oh wait, how do we clean up the trail we just blazed?’"

The Aeroscraft

aeroscraftA boyhood fascination with blimps and dirigibles is propelling a newfangled airship, reports Billy Witz in The New York Times (11/11/14). Igor Pasternak, 50, grew up in Lviv, Ukraine and "believes he is on the verge of developing an aircraft that will change the way large cargo can be shipped." He calls his innovation the Aeroscraft, and envisions a "770-foot long, silver-skinned airship, which is kept aloft by helium-filled tanks, delivering fresh fruit to Alaska, dropping triage units at disaster sites or depositing heavy machinery into remote locations."

The Aeroscraft "will take off and land like a helicopter," controlling descent via a system that replaces (non-flammable) helium with oxygen, which is heavier. The craft would have twice the capacity of a C-5 cargo plane, and a range of about 5,870 miles. Igor believes the Aeroscraft will be ready in about four years’ time and predicts it will "transform the distribution of goods the way the Internet has transformed communication." Chris Caplice of MIT isn’t so sure. "It has uses, but they are narrow," he says.

Chris suspects the Aeroscraft may go through the Gartner hype curve, "in which a period of inflated expectation is followed by the trough of disillusionment, which eventually gives way to a middle ground as a product finds its niche." The comparison is to RFID, which has "not quite revolutionized how people keep track of things." Igor is pressing on, however. Much of the development cost has "been covered by government military contracts," but Igor says he plans to derive future financing from sales.

Vintage Trailers

little-vintage-trailerLittle old trailers from the 1950s and ’60s are enjoying a comeback, reports Steven Kurutz in The New York Times (11/6/14). Kelle Arvay loves her 13-foot 1955 Bellwood travel trailer, with "its rounded aluminum shell exemplifying all that is sleek and sturdy about mid-century design." She keeps it, under a carport, in her yard. "Sleeping in one of these is just great," she says. "Especially at night, if it starts raining. It’s a great sound, the rain on the roof." She owns a 1968 Shasta Compact, measuring just 10 feet long, as well.

Kelle also buys, restores and sells old trailers, and chronicles her passion on a blog, littlevintagetrailer. She’s not the only one making money. J. Wes Yoder bought and fixed up "a ’63 Shasta on eBay for $1,900." Parked in his backyard, he rents it on Airbnb and says it was occupied almost every day for the past year. "A lot of people who stay here talk about how simple it is," he says. Old trailers "are being repurposed in all kinds of ways: as a roadside bakery stand, as vacation homes … as backyard writing or painting studios."

Some see the trailers as a time capsule, and want only original parts. Others, like Mandi Gubler, relish the chance to "transform an old shell," remaking a 1972 Bell trailer, painting the stove white and cantaloupe and installing a pine floor. Marsha Heckman bought and re-decorated a 29-foot Airstream instead of adding onto her home. Given such "renewed popularity, Shasta reissued its 1961 Airflyte," known for its "canned-ham shape," with updated appliances and a bathroom, but otherwise "preserved the classic styling."

Hendo Hoverboard

hendo-hoverboardMarty McFly inspired a generation of tinkerers to create a real hoverboard, reports Conor Dougherty in The New York Times (10/21/14). Marty and his hoverboard were fiction, of course — a memorable scene from Back To The Future Part II in which the Michael J. Fox character used "a floating skateboard to flee a gang of bullies." (video) The future back then was 2015, and the film "had other futuristic items, like flying cars and self-tying shoes, but none touched the imagination like the hoverboard."

Greg and Jill Henderson are among the inspired, although their aspiration actually is buildings — not skateboards — that float. Their hope is to arrive at a new kind of foundation, using the magnetic technologies that might give rise to the hoverboard, to "build cities to better withstand earthquakes." The Hendo Hoverboard, "a noisy magnetic skateboard that can float above a copper surface … about an inch above the ground," is as far as they’ve gotten. They just launched a Kickstarter campaign (link) to raise $250,000 to keep their dream alive.

The essential challenge is "that repelling magnets are tough to balance." Other hoverboard hopefuls include Rich DeVaul and Dan Piponi of Google X, who "got as far as a fingernail-size piece of carbon that could hover above a lattice of small magnets." Rich and Dan still think they can build a hoverboard, but admit it may be pointless. "I was racking my brain because I so wanted to build this damn thing," says Rich, adding: "We weren’t sure exactly what big problem we were solving except for this global lack of skateboard parks."

Dirigible Dreams

dirigible-dreamsHad it not been for Hitler, "the airship would yet have had a place in global transportation," writes C. Michael Hiam, author of Dirigible Dreams, in a Wall Street Journal book review by Sara Wheeler (10/18/14). Ferdinand Zeppelin "pioneered the ‘rigid dirigible,’ an airship with an aluminum frame that could support gondolas below," and some "fully expected that zeppelins would bring the war to a swift and satisfactory conclusion." The zepps did indeed scatter bombs, but "the unreliable airship’s wartime record was poor."

Unreliability was the recurring theme of the dirigible, which is defined by its "ability to navigate through the air by engine power, unlike balloon flight." Margaret G. Mather, an American who journeyed aboard the Hindenburg, reported "an indescribable feeling of lightness and buoyancy, a lift pulling upward, quite unlike an airplane." The Hindenburg also featured a "well-stocked wine cellar and cocktail bar," and a "tiny but complete" cabin where passengers could sleep "soundly between linen sheets."

The craft’s history is one of heroic attempts — such as Salomon August Andree’s "mission to reach the North Pole in a non-rigid airship," that ended in a crash. America’s "most powerful airship cheerleader," Adm. William A. Moffett, also went down with his ship. The dirigible’s "incredible potential" and the promised "future of human flight" was not to be. "One by one, nations gave up their dirigible dreams, especially after 35 souls burned to death on the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, NJ, one of the first transport disasters recorded on film." (video).