The Economics of Island Air Taxis

By Glenna Hall

I, too, want to thank Jim for this amazing opportunity. As other guest bloggers before me have done, let me introduce myself before I begin my week. I was born in 1940, which has given me a relatively long perspective on what I see today. I am a retired superior court judge, a musician, a self-styled computer geek, and an instrument-rated private pilot. The bulk of my legal and judicial career was spent in Seattle, but I am now living in a tiny island community in the San Juan Islands in the northwest corner of Washington State. I can see Canada from my house. Here I am occasionally filling in for the local judges, taking music lessons, flying airplanes, and serving on the library board. On the day I wrote this paragraph, I had already seen a half dozen bald eagles, a pair of trumpeter swans swimming, and a minuscule dog with a leopard-skin scarf being pushed in a stroller by a woman wearing a leopard-skin jacket. I couldn't have imagined a better life than this.

Jim's guest blogs have been full of airplanes and flying. It's been my impression since I started flying almost twenty years ago that pilots are interesting and interested people, so the surfeit of writing on the topic is not surprising. I will be carrying on this theme. Some other things I hope to write about involve where I live, so a bit about living in the San Juan Islands is in order.


Most of the islands that make up the archipelago are in San Juan County. None are reachable by land, and only four are served by the Washington State Ferry System (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw). I live on San Juan Island, the major community of which is Friday Harbor, the county seat. The population of the whole county is about 15,500, and the population of this island is estimated at around 7,000. A number of the islands have airports that can serve reasonable sized airplanes, and there are marinas all over the place.

The demographics on San Juan Island are quite complicated. There are a number of largely invisible super-rich and famous (not generally full-time residents); a lot of middle and upper-middle-class retirees and professionals; a number of leftover hippy types from the '70s and '80s; and a relatively small number of less well-off folks (non-subsidized housing is pricey here). The majority of the resident population is quite politically liberal, very well educated, and suprisingly welcoming to sympatico newcomers, who, if willing, can quickly get involved in the community.

You can read some divergent recent information about the islands generally, and San Juan particularly, here and here.

Not long before Jim took off, he wrote a rejoinder to Jeffrey Goldberg's article on the "menace" of small private aircraft. Jim eloquently argued against Mr. Goldberg's contention that this part of air transportation was inherently a threat to security, but he did agree that there was a significant degree of economic unfairness in some people having the wherewithal to travel free of the really unpleasant aspects of commercial air travel. Jim said:

Jeff's right that there is a huge class privilege that goes with the private jet world. It lies in the ability to cut through all the hassle that is today's commercial airline system. People rich enough to own or charter jets travel when and where they want; don't have to stand in lines; don't have to give up their water or take off their shoes; don't have to build two extra hours into travel time to allow for everything that can go wrong at the airport.  . . .That is "unfair," and it is chapter 12,748 in the ongoing "polarization of America" saga. But a major new security threat it ain't.

I can't really disagree with that, and I sometimes experience a scaled-down version of it myself.

As I mentioned above, there is no land route whatsoever to the island where I live. We do have ferries, run by the state department of transportation. These are big car ferries: fairly comfortable, and they go about as fast as you can reasonably expect a big boat to go.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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