Wearables and Commercial Air Travel

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright June 2016


Many people have a strong fear of flying, but they fly anyway. This means that during each trip they are being brave people. This sounds good, sounds noble, but it sure gets tiresome for those who have to make this kind of journey over and over. And there are surprising consequences.

The consequences of this feeling brave, and how wearables can change both the feeling and the consequences, is the topic of this essay.


Soaring like a bird sounds wonderful. It has been a delightful wish for countless people for countless generations.

As the Industrial Revolution steadily evolved this wish transformed into an aspiration for some inventive people, and there have been many successful steps towards the goal, the most famous being the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

Following that success commercial aviation began to evolve. At first only the most daring would board airplanes. But with time, as airplanes got more comfortable, convenient to use, and safer, more and more people began using them for routine travel.

Up until the 1970's the typical airline passenger would be fearful on their early flying experiences, then learn to relax and enjoy the trip. If they didn't, if they remained fearful, there were always trains, buses and cars that could be used instead.

But as air travel got more popular there was a surprising twist coming, this surprise manifested itself as dramatic changes in how commercial air travel was conducted.

Fearful Fliers to the Fore

As I pointed out above, through the 1960's most commercial airline passengers became comfortable with flying. But airline success was changing how people felt about long distance traveling. Flying became the standard, and if you weren't taking a plane from, say, New York to Miami for your winter vacation, your friends started looking at you in a strange way... a "What's the matter with you?" way. (Again, in the 1950's you either took a train or vacationed in Atlantic City instead.)

This change meant that a lot of people who stayed fearful of flying were flying anyway. They became brave people, who overcame their fears and boarded planes. ...But they still felt the fear.

Surprise outcome: The TSA neoreligion

The surprise outcome of this emerged as terrorism started mixing with air travel. Because of the fearfulness of many passengers, adding terrorism fears created a deep resonance. These passengers demanded, forcefully, that something be done about the terrorism threat. And, if what was done was highly visible, that was even better.

Out of this emerged TSA-style airport security with its line waiting and personal inspection rituals.

These TSA inspecting rituals became a neoreligion -- if everyone followed the rituals, then the plane would fly better. Hallelujah!

The problem with this is: Yes, these are rituals. They are solving an instinctive thinking problem, not a real world physical problem.

The good news is: In the near future wearables may provide a better solution to this instinctive thinking-based problem.

Further reading

This 10 Jun 16 WSJ article, U.S. Air-Traffic Liberation Congress tries to give the ancient system an upgrade, talks about the current state of air traffic control and who's doing the controlling of it.

From the article, "U.S. airlines will serve a billion passengers a year by 2029, but the FAA hasn’t rebooted since the 1960s. You may have more accurate traffic and weather information driving with an iPhone than a pilot cruising at 30,000 feet, as the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole puts it. Radar still tracks flight location, though GPS can beep out a more precise measurement. Flights last longer thanks to meandering routes as planes pass from one control center to the next. Inefficient patterns burn up fuel."

Enter Wearables: control the fear with them

Current day wearables monitor vital signs real time -- the signs of a person's health as they undergo daily activities. But they are a quickly changing technology. They are steadily becoming more sensitive in what they monitor, and they are monitoring a wider range of vital signs -- they are moving from monitoring just heartbeats and footsteps to monitoring oxygen levels as well, and much more.

And these are the first generation wearables.

The second generation wearables are going to be able to intervene and adjust what they monitor. If a person's heartbeat isn't right, the wearable will send signals to the heart to adjust the beating. (If it can't correct the problem, and this is a crisis, then emergency signals start going out to the medical First Responders.) And, as with the first generation wearables, what can get adjusted will steadily become more subtle and numerous with time.

When hormone levels can be monitored and adjusted this will allow wearables to control emotions. Whew! This will be a powerful feature, indeed!

One of the emotions that will be adjustable will be fear.

One of the places this will be controllable is when a person boards an airplane. This means that most people will no longer need to feel fearful when they fly. Hurray! Toss that bravery away!

Now Air Travel Can Change

When bravery is not needed, then rituals are not needed, and boarding an airplane can become as emotional as walking into a hotel lobby, and produce the same emotion. (The meaningful security procedures can be handled discretely, just as they are at a hotel.)

When this happens then air travel can change dramatically in many ways. The most obvious is that TSA rituals can be scrapped, but that is just the beginning. Airports and airplanes can both be redesigned to make them more convenient and efficient. They can both get smaller and more numerous. Ideally, boarding a plane can become as transparent and convenient to the passenger as boarding a bus is today. This will make air travel a whole lot simpler and more enjoyable.


Commercial air travel procedures currently in place are shaped by the fear of flying that many passengers feel. Passengers who feel this fear are being brave every time they board a plane. The surprise result of this is current TSA security rituals. These are a neoreligion that helps calm fears with the TSA people acting as the priesthood.

When wearables can control emotions, when they can suppress the fear of flying that many passengers feel, then the rituals of commercial air travel can change dramatically. The process can get a lot more flexible, a lot more convenient, and become much more like the simplicity of getting on a bus.

This is a fine example of a surprising way wearables are going to make our lives better.



--The End--