Flying Is About To Change Completely–Because Of Cars

Why fly when you can sleep and watch movies while a self-driving car takes you directly to your destination? For the first in a four-part series on the future of flying, we look at how driverless cars could upend the airline industry.

Flying Is About To Change Completely–Because Of Cars
[Photo: Luis Llerena/Unsplash]

Flying is rarely pleasant. You have to hop in a car or haul your luggage onto the subway to get there. Then you wait in seemingly endless lines, in cavernous, fluorescent-lit buildings where loudspeakers blare every few seconds, and most of the food offerings are grossly overpriced or poor quality or both. And that’s before you even get on the plane.


But 10 to 15 years from now, the flying experiences could look vastly different. One reason? Self-driving cars. They could hit U.S. roads in just a few years. One estimate from IHS Automotive puts 54 million autonomous vehicles on the road by 2035 and projects that nearly every vehicle will be autonomous by 2050.

What do self-driving cars have to do air travel? Not much at first glance, but consider this: Would you rather fly from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or hop in a self-driving car, lay back, set up a movie or two, and relax as your car drives you directly to your destination? According to the experts I consulted, self-driving cars could radically upend nearly every aspect of the flying experience, from how you travel to how you navigate the airport.

Fewer Short-Haul Flights

The ease and convenience of hopping into a self-driving car for six or seven hours while working remotely or sleeping could mean fewer short-haul flights. Why spend a similar amount of time dealing with the headache of airports when your car can drive you directly to your destination?

According to Devin Liddell, a principal brand strategist who focuses on the future of transportation at the Seattle-based design firm Teague, autonomous vehicles will drastically change the airline industry, similar to how high-speed trains have already impacted short-haul flights in countries like Japan and Spain. In Europe, high-speed rail wins 50% of all traffic when the journey length is less than 4.5 hours, according to the French National Railroads, and wins 90% of traffic when the journey is two hours or less. In Japan, high-speed rail has adversely affected short- and medium-haul flights, according to a study published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. 

Because of this kind of precedent, Liddell believes that self-driving cars could dramatically reduce the number of short-haul flights in the U.S. “Then you have an industry that’s in the business of intercontinental air travel, and everything else is taken care of by overland transportation, like autonomous vehicles,” he says.


Car companies are already thinking about this as more and more of them announce self-driving car divisions. Sven Schuwirth, Audi’s vice president of brand strategy and digital business, has already proclaimed that this would be a way to take market share from airlines and hotels, since drivers could sleep in their cars on the way to their destinations.

[Photo: Luis Llerena/Unsplash]

The End Of Lines

The convenience of self-driving cars could force airports to rethink their entire (and mostly inconvenient) experience design. This–coupled with important technological advances–could spell the end of baggage and security lines. “We’re basically going to have a line-less experience for air travel,” says Liddell. “While it sounds impossible, it’s going to be a requirement. The car is going to be queue-less. You can get in the car, watch a movie as it drives at a very high speed, and it’s going to require no hurdle jumping through lines.”

Liddell believes there are so many lines because airports don’t operate around the needs of people–instead, people are forced to work within its constraints. But technology like beacons, which track people’s smart phones, could help airports manage the flow of passengers more effectively. Of course, it would likely mean handing over your data, but if people are willing to give up privacy for efficiency, Liddell thinks this will be the best way for airports to respond to the needs of passengers–and eliminate lines in the process.

“Airlines are going to have to be a lot more personalized and more responsive, to know people better and help people feel like the airport knows who they are and what matters to them and help them maneuver it in a way that’s almost entirely hassle free,” he says. “When you turn people into nodes on a network, you can imagine people moving through an airport in far more efficient ways.”

Of course, eliminating lines is no easy task. The first line you typically encounter happens when you’re dropping off baggage–something that autonomous vehicles will be able to help with as well. “I think you could imagine that many of [the air-side vehicles] are driven autonomously,” says Jim Peters, the chief technology officer of the airport tech company Sita. “Your baggage could be handled without anybody ever touching it.”


The founder of design studio Icrave, Lionel Ohayon, imagines an even more radical future for luggage. “Bags will get picked up in the city and travel separate from you and land at your destination,” he says. “People won’t be traveling with their luggage.” Perhaps it’s picked up by a self-driving car or a specific baggage robot instead.

Security lines are a different beast, but products like Sita’s Smart Path, where passengers’ faces become the single way they’re identified throughout the airport, point toward a future where a security line could mean simply walking through a smart tunnel that scans your face and ensures you’re ready to fly.

The last line in an airport, the boarding line, could also be revamped using technology–especially since the primary technology for boarding remains the loudspeaker. “Algorithms could board people on an aircraft in far more efficient ways that don’t require an attendant to announce on a loudspeaker,” he says.

The Rise Of Door-To-Door Airport Service

To compete with self-driving cars, Liddell believes that airlines will have to shift the services they’re offering. Most importantly, they may need to offer door-to-door service, picking up customers from their homes or convenient pick-up locations and delivering them directly to the airport.

That’s something that already happens in luxury travel, where airlines like Emirates offer door-to-door services. But Liddell believes this trend could trickle down to economy passengers when airlines are suddenly forced to seriously compete with other modes of transportation. That could offer a potential new revenue stream and business model for airlines as well.


Ironically, Liddell thinks that one way airlines will compete with self-driving cars is by owning a fleet of them. “You could have Delta, that’s not even known as Delta, but is in the integrated [transport] business,” he says. “If you’re going to Hawaii, a Delta robot car might pick you up at your house and take you to the airport. The same thing might happen on the other side, too.”

And if an airline is controlling your ground transportation, it’ll be able to provide other services as well. “They come pick you up, they load your baggage, and potentially, your bag will be screened while sitting in the vehicle,” says Ty Osbaugh, the principal focused on airports at the architecture firm Gensler, which has designed terminals in San Francisco, New York, and Detroit, and is working on a design for a new terminal at the Incheon airport in South Korea slated for completion this year. “It drives you to the airport, and drops you right where you need to be so they can process you quickest.”

Door-to-door service may be necessary to compete because American airports tend to be further out from city centers–and often lack consistent, high-speed options for getting there. “If you think about how people want to travel, they want to travel point-to-point,” says Liddell. “They don’t want to travel via hub and spoke networks, where you find your way from place to place. But cars will be point-to-point.”

[Image: Italdesign/courtesy Airbus]
Plane manufacturers are thinking about autonomous vehicles as well. In collaboration with Italdesign, Airbus recently released a concept vehicle that’s part self-driving car, part self-driving drone. Called Pop.Up, the fully autonomous vehicle is supposed to pick you up, then drive you to a launchpad, where separate drone-like propellers attach to the self-driving car’s roof and lift the main capsule into the air, leaving the wheels behind. It’s a trippy concept, designed specifically for avoiding traffic. But it’s easy to imagine how in a decade, each airline could own a fleet of this type of vehicle to bring passengers to the airport, avoiding ground congestion in order to get you to your flight on time.

A New Life For The Airport Parking Structure

Not only will autonomous vehicles force airlines to compete with ground transportation in a more wide-scale manner, self-driving cars will likely fundamentally alter the nature of the airport itself. According to Sita CTO Peters, one of the primary ways self-driving cars will impact airports is by eliminating the need for parking structures, since people’s cars can feasibly drop them off and simply drive back home. Because one of the major non-aeronautical revenue streams for airports comes from parking fees, this could have an outsized effect on the airport business model.


When you think of an airport environment today, the first impression is a big parking garage. In the age of autonomous vehicles, that space is going to go away,” says Osbaugh. “What does that space become? A lot of airports are terrified now—if that goes away, what’s going to be the backfill?”

When the parking structure is not longer needed, airports will have a large chunk of real estate that could be turned into something else. For Osbaugh, that’s an urban design question. “What makes the land desirable, to be around an airport?” he says. “I think we have to figure out some way to make the land viable commercially.”

That could mean turning it into a hotel or a conference center. “All the terminals, they want a plan for where they can put the hotel in the future,” says Curt Fentress, the principal of Fentress Architects, which has built airports and terminals for Los Angeles, Denver, and Seattle, to name a few.

[Photos: Erez Attias/Unsplash/Kirill Zakharov/Unsplash]

A Fuzzy Roadmap Ahead

All of these predictions imagine a future in which self-driving cars are fully integrated into our global infrastructure. The reality is that the shift will be much more incremental. In this hybrid situation, the airline industry, never one to embrace change, will struggle to adjust to the new paradigm, and passengers will no doubt get caught in the middle.

I think the airlines are really happy with the status quo—lots of insular revenue from bag fees, and more travelers coming online,” Liddell says. “That’s a recipe for disruption.”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable