James Fallows

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.

James Fallows: Free flight

  • Alan Klapmeier on hope for general aviation

    One of the heroes of my book Free Flight, and of this excerpted Atlantic cover story, was Alan Klapmeier, who with his brother Dale founded and ran the Cirrus Design aircraft company of Duluth, MN. Ten years ago, when I was spending time with them in a mainly-vacant hangar in Duluth, they had not delivered the first airplane to the first customer and were in promising-startup mode. Through most of the years since then, their mainstay SR-22 propeller plane has been the most popular single-engine plane in the world. More than 4,000 of them are in service in North America, Europe, South America, Australia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and other places too. Like all airplane companies from Boeing on down, Cirrus has had to cut way back in the past year.

    Manufacturing people are not always eloquent about their work and its implications. Alan Klapmeier is a dramatic exception. He is an interviewer's dream: able -- and all too willing! -- to talk for hours about why he made this decision versus that one, why he believes in his work, what his vision of the future is and how he plans to get there.

    Klapmeier is still chairman but no longer CEO of Cirrus, for reasons I'd know more about if I were on scene to talk with him. But via the Cirrus owners' site I found this link to a speech he delivered recently at the Atlanta Aero Club. Index of Aero Club speeches here; direct link to video of Klapmeier's appearance here. From the video: 

    Klapmeier3.jpg

    People who are interested in aviation will be interested in the whole hour-plus presentation. Klapmeier talks about the real-world barriers to the expansion of general aviation; Cirrus's upcoming models including its new jet; the problem of icing in small planes; and many other topics.

    People who don't care about aviation but are interested in human nature, innovation, technical progress, and the kind of advances on which future U.S. prosperity depends might want to watch at least a few minutes. I think they give exposure to an impressive person who can not only "do" but also talk engagingly about what he is doing. We're used to encountering this kind of person in. say, the biotech or software world. This is a sample from the world of producing tangible, highly-complex physical objects -- working, by the way, in the only manufacturing category (aerospace) in which the U.S. has long produced a significant trade surplus.

    The first eight or nine minutes, in which he discusses why small aircraft became an oddball specialist taste, give an illustration. (Forgive the first 45 seconds, in which he is fiddling with the projector.) From about minute 20 through minute 30 he talks about the problem of icing and pilot safety. From minute 30 onward, he talks about Cirrus's new "personal jet." From minute 45 onwards, an entrepreneur's perspective of Wall Street, derivatives, etc. But right at minute 37:00 through about 43:00 you get a full view of the entrepreneur's passion that I encountered when I first met him. This may give a little taste of why I thought I had come across an interesting story after that first visit to Duluth.

  • Free Flight update #5: first DayJet flight

    Six years ago, I was on the book-tour circuit discussing my book Free Flight, which had just come out. It was about several parallel innovations in the aviation biz -- more efficient engines, cheaper and better ways of building planes, safer ways to navigate and control the planes -- that might together make "air taxis" part of the solution to the misery of hub-and-spoke airline travel.


    A standard interview question was: OK, when is any of this going to happen? And my standard answer was: I don't know, maybe the next five to ten years?


    Last week -- right on my schedule! -- it happened. The DayJet company of Florida, mentioned here earlier when NASA pioneer Bruce Holmes went to work for them, carried its first paying customer of its first on-demand, priced-per-seat* trip.


    In one way, the air-taxi era arrived even sooner than that. For a few years now, companies like SATSair have been offering a much cheaper form of previous air-charter services, using spiffy new propeller planes, mainly the 4-seat Cirrus SR22.



    But DayJet's news is significant because it involves air taxis of a form most customers would feel comfortable with: namely small twin-engine jets (Eclipse 500 VLJs, whose evolution, like the Cirrus's, I described in the book).


    This first trip was from Boca Raton, Florida, to Tallahassee, and its details show when and how the air-taxi model might work.

    Here are the options a traveler has with and without air taxis:


    Driving from Boca Raton to Tallahassee is 450+ miles and should take about six and a half hours.


    Train: If there is an easy way to make the trip, in fact if there's any way, it's not evident from the Amtrak site.


    By commercial airlines, there are no scheduled flights (that I have found) from Boca Raton to Tallahassee, or to anywhere else. That's no surprise. Of the 5000 or so airports in the United States, about 100 account for nearly all scheduled airline service, and something like 800 have any scheduled flights at all. Using the other 4000+ airports is much of the point of the air-taxi model.


    The nearest "real" airports to Boca Raton with flights to Tallahassee are Fort Lauderdale, half an hour's drive to the south, or Miami, another half hour or more southward. There are three nonstops a day from Miami: at 8:35am , 12:20pm, and 4pm, and they take about an hour and a half. The situation from Fort Lauderdale is about the same: flights at 7am, 10:40am, and 5pm. Allowing for traffic, parking, the check-in process, security, and unexpected delays, you can work out when you'd need to leave Boca Raton to make those flights.


    The one-way fare on a Delta regional, without advance-purchase discount, is listed today as $447 from either place.


    (Update: I've just found that West Palm Beach, north of Boca Raton, also has three nonstops a day to Tallahassee, for $317.)


    Air taxi: Here is the real schedule of the inaugural DayJet trip, as relayed in a celebratory email from the company:



    AT 0748 WE CLOSED THE DOOR IN BCT [local Boca Raton airport] AND STARTED ENGINES


    AT 0752 WE WERE WHEELS UP


    AT 0908 WE WERE WHEELS DOWN


    AT 0914 WE OPENED THE DOOR IN TLH [Tallahassee airport] FOR OUR FIRST REVENUE MEMBER



    So, 1 hour and 24 minutes after the passenger got into the airplane in Boca Raton, he or she was getting off at the destination. That's less than the scheduled actual flight time for the airlines, which doesn't count the hours of hassle at each end.


    How much did it cost? I don't know. The company didn't say. But with a benchmark of the $447 commercial fare (or even $317), and placing any value at all on a traveler's time and convenience, I assume it was competitive.


    Of course this is exactly the sort of medium-length point-to-point travel for which air taxis are optimized. It's too long to drive for a day trip; it's inconvenient and expensive via the airlines; it occurs in an area where there a lot of small airports that have no commercial service.


    This model is never going to compete with NY-LA long haul traffic or DFW-Atlanta trunk routes. Nor with the cheapest advance-purchase discounts. Rather it's designed to be similar to today's biz jets for executives, in that you can go from the airport closest to you, directly to the airport closest to where you want to end up, at short notice and at a time you choose. The difference is that it should be cheap enough to be competitive with full-fare commercial flights.


    This flight doesn't resolve all the issues about air taxis, or the airlines, or anything else. (On some of these issues: a long audio interview by Jon Udell, with DayJet's founder Ed Iacobucci, here.) But it is a step worth noting.


    `


    Previous updates here, here, here, and here.`


    * The "priced per seat" concept distinguishes DayJet from NetJets, AirShares, or similar existing operations. Under those other models, you pay for use of the airplane, no matter how many people intend to travel. DayJet sets its prices per passenger carried.

    More »

  • Free Flight update #4: Things to read

    (...apart from the original scripture, of course...)


    Two on-line magazines:


    Very Light Jet magazine, and


    VLJ Planet


    Both are based in Florida and have rundowns of news from Eclipse, Epic, Cirrus, Dayjet, Cessna, etc. and commentary on trends in the small-jet and "air taxi" industries.


    One blog:


    Esther Dyson's Flight School blog, about the annual for-pay conferences she holds on the industry.


    One article:


    In the new issue of Portfolio, Gabriel Sherman's report on the most controversial person in the small-jet movement, Vern Raburn of Eclipse Aviation. One of the two companies I focused on in Free Flight has gone on to be an out-and-out success: Cirrus Design, which has sold thousands of its innovative, parachute-equipped small propeller planes and dominates its part of the market. The other, Eclipse, has had a much rockier path. Many people still think it will transform the world of travel; many others think it's a house of cards. This article explains both sides.


    One sample skeptical post:


    From (my friend) Richard Aboulafia, of the Teal Group, who hints here at the reasons he appears in most VLJ stories as the "but there are critics" expert who says, "This is all a dream."


    One video:


    OK, this is to look at rather than to read, but still: Honda's new light jet in flight. Site is slow to load but interesting.


    -


    The blog world is brimming with other VLJ-related information -- for instance, try the VLJ tag at del.icio.us -- but this is enough for now. (Past Free Flight updates here, here, and here.)

  • Free Flight update #3: Bruce Holmes to DayJet

    A hero of my book Free Flight was a civil servant named Bruce Holmes. He was a career pilot – he’d paid his way through graduate school at the University of Kansas by flying cropdusters for a commuter airline, towing banners, hauling caskets for funeral homes, etc – and a career civil servant, for NASA. For at least two decades he has prided himself on being an “entrepreneurial bureaucrat.” In effect this meant that he put existing big companies in touch with little startups, and both of them with government regulators, in hopes of fostering the growth of a new small-airplane industry. I often think of him as a counterpart to Tim Berners-Lee* – the man who, by creating standards for the World Wide Web, helped countless other people to become filthy rich.


    Here is Bruce Holmes, in a more-bureaucratic-than -entrepreneurial-looking NASA portrait:

    Holmes has now left NASA (which itself seems to be leaving the aviation business, as opposed to space – more on that another day) and joined one of the companies whose very existence is due in part to his efforts. I imply no defense-contractor revolving-door-style impropriety whatsoever. Holmes has been selfless in helping a wide variety of American entrepreneurs, and he has now found a firm whose emphasis matches his own main interest.


    Holmes has for years preached the gospel that air travel required an internet-style "systems revolution." With its hub-and-spoke emphasis, it was becoming cumbersome and brittle -- like a telephone system in the days when all calls had to go through central switchboards. It needed the kind of decentralized flexibility that the internet brought to communication. (Links to some of his standard presentations can be found here.)


    Holmes has now gone to work for DayJet, one of the most interesting new "free flight" companies. Its CEO is Ed Iacobucci, an IBM veteran who founded the networking company Citrix. The idea of the company is that scheduling point-to-point, on-demand flights will be the crucial factor in making the entire industry viable. To be more than a pure luxury product, air taxis must keep their prices low; to survive with low prices, they have to hold down costs too. Toward that end, DayJet says it is offering sophisticated mathematical and routing formulas to make sure that enough planes and enough pilots are in the right places to respond to short-notice requests for trips. It's a version of the model that FedEx, DHL, and UPS apply -- but with a lot more unknowns.


    Whether this will actually work, no one knows. But it is nice to see a bona fide public servant have a further chance to apply his skills.


    (*I like making references to Tim Berners-Lee because he is one of few widely known alumni of the college I attended at Oxford: Queen's College. Another is, umm, "Mr. Bean," Rowan Atkinson. Long ago there was the grim Jeremy Bentham, so I guess he and Mr. Bean net out to a "normal" level of sobriety.)

    More »

  • Free Flight update #2: Bring on the Dreamliner

    This week Boeing unveiled its "Dreamliner," the 787, to bulging order books and widespread acclaim.



    Yes, it could seem strange to include a $160-million-per-copy airliner as part of the revolution that may lead to more convenient air travel via smaller, less expensive airplanes. But the Dreamliner qualifies as an honorary part of the "Free Flight" movement in two ways:

    First, its concept is the antithesis of Airbus's big and apparently misguided bet on even huger airplanes serving an even more concentrated hub-and-spoke system. The Dreamliner carries only half as many passengers as Airbus's ponderous A380 but is designed to serve more direct-flight, non hub-and-spoke routes. (John Newhouse lays out this epic struggle in his recent book Boeing versus Airbus, with this caveat.)


    Second, and the real reason I'm writing: the Dreamliner was designed by people who wanted passengers to realize that they were sitting in an airplane, up in the sky , not in a conference room at a Holiday Inn.


    Four years ago I got to interview the plane's designers, for an article in Travel and Leisure. Here is part of what they told me about the plane then known as the 7E7 (for "experimental"):



    "Passengers have articulated needs—things they know they would like to be different," says Klaus Brauer, who is working on the Dreamliner's interior. These needs boil down to a desire to have two seats' worth of space for the price of half a seat, which of course isn't going to happen. But even more powerful, he says, are "unarticulated needs—aspects of flight that passengers may not notice on a cognitive level but that will let them walk away feeling great."...


    The 7E7 will adjust the color of ambient cabin lighting, in a way that is supposed to re-create the sensations of sunrise and sunset and help people adjust to jet lag...And it will reverse a dominant trend in airplane design by emphasizing, rather than concealing, the fact that passengers are tens of thousands of feet up in the sky. "People say how bored they are with flying," Brauer says. "It's sophisticated to say you hate it. But our research shows that, very deep in the subconscious, almost everyone—young and old, in any part of the world—loves the idea of flying." The practical consequence, he says, would be a variety of touches in the 7E7's interior that make travelers aware that they are in a flying machine, not an anonymous hotel corridor...




    Yes, you can make any airplane look great, as in this picture, with big seats and lots of leg room. We all have a sense of how the interior might turn out if, say, Northwest got hold of it. And for another time is the topic of what the Dreamliner means for American industrial strength: more than with any airplane in the past, Boeing has delegated crucial parts of the Dreamliner's design and construction to firms in Japan. Still, the arrival of the Dreamliner is good news. Welcome and congratulations.

    More »

  • Free Flight update (kicking off a series)

    The book I had most fun writing was Free Flight, which came out six years ago. At the time, the hub-and-spoke nature of the airline system was driving passengers crazy with inconvenience and delay. Also at the time, a variety of entrepreneurs and innovators -- some in little garage-scale businesses, some within the federal government itself -- were dreaming up a system of decentralized, flexible, point-to-point air travel based on radically more efficient and less expensive small aircraft.


    For a while after the 9/11 attacks, some people thought that nothing other than air-marshal-laden airliners would ever again be allowed in the sky. But the innovation continued, and the crowding, hassle, and inconvenience of the hub-and-spoke system have become worse than ever. Many of the projects that were gleams in the eye when I wrote the book are now going enterprises: for instance, Cirrus Design, which was then a little family operation, is now by far the most popular maker of small piston-engine planes in the world. (Disclosure: I bought one of Cirrus's earliest planes, at list price, after writing the book -- and sold it, for not that much less than I paid, on the used market when I moved to China last year. As reported earlier, my one experience in flying a plane in China was so chastening that I will not try that again.)


    A whole string of other updates awaits. To begin with: the news last week that this same Cirrus company has entered the "personal jet" market with a new model of its own. More details from Cirrus here and from AVWeb here. Official portrait below:


    AVWeb snapshot of plane with Alan Klapmeier -- Cirrus's CEO, and co-founder of the company along with his brother Dale -- at the plane's unveiling in Duluth, here:



    This is a plane that, realistically, I could never afford. But I am glad to know that it exists -- and that, theoretically, I would even be capable of flying it, since the company has been at pains to make the cockpit and control panel identical to its existing planes (with the obvious exception of engine controls).

    More »

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