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.

    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:

    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:


    More »

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