At the beginning of the twentieth century, air travel was seen as a semi-miraculous feat of modern technology. Fast forward to today, when we accept as a given that it's possible to hop on a plane and emerge on the other side of the continent only a few hours later.
In just over a hundred years, flying went from being unfathomable to unremarkable, and now, to judge by the flood of passenger complaints, nearly unbearable. Long security lines, longer flight delays, cramped seats, bad food: it's no surprise that air travel is bread and butter material for stand-up comics.
What is surprising is that persistent customer dissatisfaction hasn't posed much of a threat to the airline industry. In 2015, low fuel costs and record highs in passenger traffic added up to airlines' most profitable year ever.
The irony is that other sectors of the travel industry have been upended by disruptive new firms. Airlines are enjoying profitability at the same time that taxi and rental car companies are facing an existential crisis.
Disruption: Easier Said Than Done
Uber became the world's two most valuable startups by transforming the market for ground transportation. Why hasn't the same happened with air travel?
It's not for lack of trying. There are a number of companies looking to change the way we travel long distances.
On one end of the spectrum are ambitious projects like the hyperloop that have the potential to replace air travel altogether. And on the other end are less glamorous but arguably more revolutionary companies that are rethinking existing service models.
Ryanair and Spirit Airlines are two examples of carriers that have shaken up the industry with ultra-economy airfares. In some ways, they're like uberPool at 30,000 feet.
However, most of the "Uber for air travel" hype has been bestowed on startups focused on private jet booking.
"Uber for [blank]" is a common shorthand for any tech-enabled, on-demand service, but it's potentially misleading when applied to air travel. We're still a long way away from a world in which we arrange cross-country flights as seamlessly and affordably as we arrange a ride across town.
What's more, there are good reasons to believe we'll never get there.
Missing the Point
The need for on-demand air travel simply isn't as widespread as it is for ground transportation. The vast majority of flights are booked weeks in advance. After all, planning a vacation or a business trip requires more time than catching a cab.
There is a small segment of corporate travelers who require day-of flight options, but they're already well-served by the bevy of new private jet rental services, not to mention abundant commercial options.
Booking a flight last-minute isn't cheap. Airfares are lowest around 50 days before the date of departure and begin to spike two weeks out. Airlines have gotten incredibly sophisticated about managing their inventory, meaning there's not an untapped supply of seats waiting to be snapped up on the cheap.
Private jets won't change this calculus. There are fewer than 20,000 private jets registered in the United States, and most of these are small, single-prop planes with limited range. In terms of excess capacity that could be brought to market through new booking technology, this represents a drop in the bucket. It's a very different situation from ride-sharing, which allows millions of cars on the road to be used as de-facto taxis.
The real disruption is likely to come from low-cost commercial carriers. Analysis from Rocketrip (where I'm founder and CEO), a company that incentivizes employees to spend less on their business trips by letting them keep half of what they save, found that travelers who flew a low-cost carrier spent 33% less.
For millions of loyal users, Uber's appeal is that it's more accessible and more affordable than traditional taxis and black cars. An "Uber for Air Travel" that relies on private jets might offer improved comfort, but can't compete on what matters most: convenience or cost.