Low-cost flying has revolutionised travel by spawning a mass culture of taking regular short breaks instead of an annual holiday. But while our frequency of travel may have grown exponentially over the past decade, the quality of the flying experience has declined in equal measure.
Whilst once flying exuded an air of glamour, it has now been reduced to an experience barely more pleasurable than catching the London underground at rush-hour. The worst part is the growth of the queuing culture.
A flight from London to Prague, for example, may take only two hours, but the time cumulatively spent queuing at the check-in, passport control, security, boarding and baggage control can invariably end up longer.
Yet surely the essence of a short-break should all be about travelling quickly and efficiently, and enjoying the limited spare time in our hectic lives at our destination rather than loitering around the baggage carousel?
As CityBreak Expo in Gothenburg entered its second day, delegates at the Special Session turned their attentions towards how to make flying a less painful experience.
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has a characteristically simple approach to the problem.
“The battle for the air is won on the ground,” said Torkild Berglund, SAS Director of Leisure Sales. “By focussing on how to make it easier and quicker to get through the airport will make us the market leader.”
The airline is currently rolling out a series of technical solutions to the problem that it claims will eventually eliminate all queuing at airports.
“I’ve tested these innovations which have cut the time of parking my car at Stockholm Arlanda Airport to sitting on the plane to under 20 minutes during rush-hour,” says Bergland.
This might seem a bold statement from an airline executive, but SAS does have a track-record in aviation firsts - first female pilot (1969), first commercial airline to fly over the North Pole (1953), the first in-flight movie (1968) and the first flat-beds.
So just how does SAS plan to rule the skies in 2009?
The first, which the airline is currently trialling at seven airports including Heathrow and Oslo, is a new service that allows customers to travel using just their mobile phone.
“Currently, approximately 10% of SAS passengers check-in via SMS, but our goal for 2011 is that 80% of our customers check-in off-airport, which means online or via their mobile,” he says.
Mobiles will also be equipped with an optical reader which, combined with biometric fingerprinting, will eliminate security queues.
Passengers will also be able to place an electronic tag on each piece of baggage - a device SAS call a “tagomat”. This will allow them to load bags automatically by themselves, and works in tandem with a biometric machine that matches a passenger’s bags with their fingerprint.
As the 5th City Break Expo, and the first managed by ETOA, drew to a close, exhibitors praised the quality of the intimate event, and the confidence that the current downturn is but a blip in a long-term upward trend.
“US consumer confidence, the benchmark to the healthy of the global economy, has risen consecutively for the past four months, which is enormously encouraging and a good indicator that we could well be over the worst,” said Tom Jenkins, President, ETOA.
“If you look historically at all crisis from the Gulf War to SARS and 9-11, there is a period of initial panic that quickly evaporates, then it back to business as usual. It is the same this time round.”
However the real star of the two-day show was the city of Gothenburg, which under the spotlight of Europe’s leading tour operators oozed an understated Swedish charm that will ensure its ranking as an essential European city break is very much in the ascendancy.