What I know about airtech: Paul Papadimitriou

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Paul Papadimitriou is a self-described technologist but we weren’t interested in that, we wanted his thoughts on flying cars.

Papadimitriou’s hobby is air tech, or travel tech or aviation tech or “whatever you want to call it”. His podcast Layovers goes deep on aviation innovation and technologies, and the startups that are trying to change aviation, for both consumers and the businesses at the coalface of this industry.

As MENA airlines and startup supporters wake up to the idea that entrepreneurs can contribute more than just another booking site to the industry, it’s a timely topic for this region.

While aviation executives are interested in new ideas, it’s often hard for entrepreneurs to get a foothold in the industry.

Entrepreneurs in the region have complained of idea theft and a lack of interest in working with them.

Moreover, airlines’ procurement processes are years long - an eternity compared to the necessarily hyper-fast timelines of a startup - and issues such as safety, perhaps not high on the agenda of an entrepreneur-with-an-idea, are paramount for an airline.

Papadimitriou isn’t a dreamer when it comes to this industry, but does have some ideas on where ‘avgeek’ entrepreneurs should be and what they should be doing.

Supersonic travel might be possible. But I don't think it's actually going to be economically feasible. There is a startup Boom in the US and there's a few others, and of course the big guys like Boeing and Airbus are working on it, to bring back the days of the Concorde.

Exuberance is OK. If investors are OK to pour in billions of dollars, that they might lose, to advance technologies that will help you and me travel faster, then why the hell not. When you look at the profile of Boom they're very capable. The Hyperloop - I was very doubtful and then I met the CEO and founder of one of the many Hyperloop companies, well they actually are building and testing it and they actually have contracts. Sometimes it takes a leap of faith.

The best aviation idea right now is not sexy. There's been a disconnect between airports and airlines because of legacy software systems, but there are startups building another layer so all of these systems can talk to each other. It’s not sexy. One of the airports that's done it is Doha. You're not seeing it fully yet as a customer but the idea is that when you start a journey all the information you need can be delivered on your phone. It's exciting because to me the promise of aviation is not the glamorous days of the past, it's about having a normal journey which is not disrupted by stupid legacy systems.

The future of air travel is… more comfortable planes. People now have airplane brand recognition and manufacturers are starting to also build for the clients of their clients - us. You have some of the glimpses in the A350 and the Dreamliner. Up until now Airbus’ and Boeing’s clients were either the lessors or the actual airlines, but more and more regular flyers are saying ‘oh it's cool I'm in an A380 or a Dreamliner’, and it’s breaking this model of being only a B2B company.

Aviation hasn’t been disrupted yet because of safety and thin margins. You want to be able to fly from point A to point B without crashing. Take wifi, it’s one innovation people are still complaining about not having on planes. But not only is it expensive, as you've got to beam it to satellites and back, you first have to decide whether or not installing a wifi antennae and allowing every person to switch it on is actually safe in a moving airplane.

Booking sites are over. I'm pitched a lot about startups in travel and aviation and 80 percent are yet another booking site. But they’re basically dead because Google’s antitrust agreement with the US Department of Transport to not overly compete when they acquired ITA expired in October 2016. Now Google has a great tool - imagine what they can do with a freer reign.

The biggest aviation innovation is open skies. In the past 30 years the liberalisation of air space has allowed low cost carriers. You can go from London to Moscow for the price of a cab fare. Is that not innovation? My parents couldn't do that because it was the price of a first class ticket nowadays.

Asia is where airtech will land. Right now there's not a single city or place that is known for travel tech. For fintech you think London, consumer tech is mostly Silicon Valley. The continent that shows the most promise is Asia because it's a huge market with huge growth. And when China opens up its visa policies, so its people can travel, that will change things completely.

Self-flying cars are not going to fly. There are two issues: the flying and the self-driving. We’ve already seen with drones that people don't understand the concept of a ‘restricted area’. These aren't restricted areas because you want to hide something, but because maybe there's an airport nearby and you don't want to crash planes. Then there’s privacy. The self driving issue is where I'm not fully convinced. People still don't trust self-driving cars. In commercial planes most of the flight is now actually done by a computer, so you could have self flying commercial planes tomorrow. But people would not accept that. It's not the technology but the acceptance of having something that flies for you.

Feature image of Paul Papadimitriou at BDL Accelerate 2016 via BDL

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