Walter Wellman was an explorer who made several unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by airship (including an attempt covered here back in July). In this article, he considers the future of commercial air travel.
My faith is strong that having demonstrated the practicability of air travel man will go on till he has developed flight into a state of perfection and usefulness not even indicated by the apparatus of to-day.
Whether or not full commercial utilization of aerial navigation is coming, soon or late, is a question which no one can now adequately and confidently answer. It may come; it may not. My own impression, rather than conviction, is that in the next half century we shall have limited rather than universal commercial application of the art. But within those limitations will be found much that is highly beneficial to humanity…
Commercial aerial navigation, like any other navigation, means operation for a profit in competition with railways and steamships. involved in operation for a profit are certain requirements well understood, but which it will be well to state. First, there must be a high degree of safety of operation, and reduction to a small minimum of the risk of accident to the ship itself and its passengers and cargo. Without this high degree of safety ships and their cargoes cannot be insured at practicable premiums, owners cannot afford to carry their own insurance, (since the inevitable losses must be made up in some way,) passengers will not offer themselves for voyages, and goods will not be tendered for transportation without insurance.
Next, ships of an aerial transportation line, like steamships and railways trains, must be fairly sure of setting out on a given schedule, and of accomplishing the voyage in a reasonably close approximation to the time advertised beforehand. It is clear that great uncertainty of departure and of time of arrival would constitute a handicap against the enterprise in competition with more stable modes of transportation.
These objections, sure to hold in the long run, might not apply sharply to an aerial line as long as the novelty remained. For the unusual experience of a trip in the air passengers might offer themselves and be wiling to pay much higher rates of fare than they would have to pay upon competing lines.
Oddly, Wellman does not include thoughts of air travel by plane, even though that was clearly where the industry was heading. The first planes which carry passengers were already in development, but he focuses primarily on the problems of commercial balloon flight.
WALTER WELLMAN ON THE FUTURE OF AERIAL NAVIGATION: From Facts Gained in His Own Experiences He Points Out What Is Needed to Conquer the Air. (PDF)
From February 5, 1911