Time travel. Air travel. When you think about it, they're really one and the same.

As my futurist colleague Robert T. Buckman has observed, jets telescope space and time. With people traveling not only farther and faster, but more frequently than ever before, travel companies that don't want to be left behind need to time-warp forward to discern the trends that will define air travel's future.

Since my company (Amadeus) is a behind-the-scenes provider of advanced information technology to airlines and other travel enterprises, we've done just that. We've peered a decade and more ahead to identify key social, demographic, economic, and technological trends. Those trends are detailed in a report released earlier this year.

Titled Future Traveller Tribes 2020, this study reveals that consumers are sorting themselves into four fairly well-defined influentials -- we called them "traveler tribes" -- so-called because they will shape the next travel decade.

The four groups are:

  • Global Executives
  • Cosmopolitan Commuters
  • Global Clans
  • Active Seniors

We call these travelers "tribes" because even as they morph into a cyber future, their behavior is a throwback to tribal times. These formative groups comprise the people who are already influencing what the rest of us will expect and actually experience 10 to 15 years from now.

I wish I could afford to room with the first tribe -- i.e., those 'elite' business travelers for whom the travel ideal is a private jet. This tribe predominates in emerging economic markets, like Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which will record significant growth in the next decade.

I also don't seem to belong to the second tribe -- i.e., consultants and other professionals who live in one city but work in another. Instead of using a car, we commute by air.

The biggest tribe in sheer numbers may consist of the global clans, i.e., the people who depend upon air travel to stay in touch with their increasingly dispersed extended family. Global clans will leverage online technologies to collectively manage travel arrangements. Online sites will enable global clans to do cross-regional travel bookings, with family members in one region handling travel plans for members in another region. Global clans will encourage the development of such innovative "distributional channels" as electronic travel vouchers, and travel vending machines and "booking booths" in supermarkets and elsewhere.

Perhaps the fastest-growing group of influentials are active seniors, including baby boomers, for whom travel is already an important outlet for cultural and leisure pursuits. Boomers will be living out dreams they could have only fantasized as TV-bound kids watching the The Jetsons.

The particular needs of active seniors will drive the development of particular technologies, such as the availability on their home computer screens of virtual-reality airport tours that will familiarize them with any imaginable detail of travel connections, amenities, security, and passport/visa rules. This lot will become reliant upon hand-held navigation devices not only for their itinerary but to ensure they're in the right place at the right time. Baggage will be RFID-tagged and picked up from their homes before they fly for direct delivery to their hotel. On their journey, "sensing" technologies will monitor personal stress levels and well-being. And, most mind-boggling of all, families will be able to allay worries by tracking their active seniors, online, every step of their journeys.

Taken together, these four groups of influentials will help drive new technologies and services that may simplify, even humanize the travel process.

As difficult as it may be to believe in these days of endless delays, travel 10 to 15 years from now will improve. Airlines and the other travel providers will get better at personalizing your journey and satisfying your individual preferences. By ensuring flexibility and reliability the airlines will improve profitability and loyalty among customers who are willing to pay for just those services they want -- when and how they want them.