Freedom of the Skies

Everyone knows about the horrors of modern air travel. What almost no one knows is how inventors, entrepreneurs, and government visionaries have teamed up to create new kinds of small planes that can take off from and land almost anywhere. "Escape From Airline Hell" the scenario might be called, and it's coming soon to an airport near you.
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P eople who travel on airlines all have stories about how bad the experience is when things go wrong. Lost or damaged luggage. Unexplained waits on the taxiway, with the passengers strapped in but the plane not allowed to take off. Missed connections and overnight delays because of snow in Denver or fog in San Francisco or thunderstorms in the Midwest.

Also see:

Interviews: "The Soul of a New Flying Machine" (May 25, 2001)
James Fallows, the author of Free Flight, argues that the next generation of small planes could usher in a new age of travel.

But the more striking fact is how unpleasant and inefficient the experience can be when nothing in particular has gone wrong. The series of waits: to get over the bridge or through the tunnel or the tollbooth en route to the airport; to drop off the rental car or catch the shuttle bus from the parking lot; to make it to the check-in counter; to pass through the security gate; to get the shuttle to the far-off terminal; to buy coffee or sandwiches to supplement the pretzels offered as food on the trip; to get onto the plane and join the fight for space in the overhead bins. Because any of these waits can turn out to be much longer than "normal," worst-case padding for all of them must be built into plans for leaving home or work to get to the airport. When flight delays were reaching record levels last summer, an executive from an airplane-manufacturing company told me that he'd made a bet with a friend. The bet concerned how long it would be before an argument over a canceled flight or a lost bag led one frustrated person to kill another in an airport. It would have happened already, the man said, except that airport security gates keep passengers from bringing in guns.

Then, on the other end, more waits: for the bags, for the car or taxi from the airport to the home, office, meeting, or vacation site one is trying to reach. That final leg of the trip can be a minor factor for those traveling nonstop from one airline hub city to another—New York to Chicago, say, or Atlanta to Dallas. But it represents a large share of the total travel time for people either beginning or ending their journey somewhere other than in one of these hubs. For trips of 500 miles or less, which include the majority of air journeys, going by commercial airline is effectively no faster than traveling by car. "Think about it," the administrator of NASA, Daniel Goldin, said in a speech in 1998. "You are flying through the air at three hundred to five hundred miles per hour during the part of your trip that is in the commercial airplane. But your average speed from when you left your home to when you arrive at your destination is only fifty or sixty miles per hour."

The steep pricing penalty for last-minute bookings and changes helps the airlines use their fleets efficiently, as does hub-and-spoke routing. But both policies mean less freedom and flexibility for the traveler. Together they have also put air travel distinctly out of phase with the evolution of the modern economy as a whole.

Since at least the early nineties the trend in most businesses has been toward on-demand, always-available products and services that suit the customer's convenience rather than the company's. You can make or receive phone calls from almost anywhere. You can get money at any time from any ATM in almost any part of the world, and you can do your banking at 3:00 a.m. on your home computer rather than queuing up for a teller during bankers' hours. You can order books, clothes, movies, by phone, computer, or fax, and have them delivered overnight.

Through most of the twentieth century commercial air travel was an important part of the movement toward giving people more freedom, flexibility, and control over how they used their time. By the early 1940s airplanes had made it possible to cross the country in one long day of travel, rather than in several days by train. In the 1960s touring families and students could get to Europe on overnight charter flights, rather than having to spend five days on a ship. Businesses could receive timely shipments from distant suppliers and coordinate work among offices in different states or countries.

But starting in the 1990s commercial airlines added more rigidity than flexibility to the system, in order to keep airplanes full while competing on price. More and more of the traffic was routed through a small number of hub airports, although the United States has well over 13,000 "landing facilities," many thousands of which would be suitable for all but the largest planes. Today more than 80 percent of all airline traffic takes off from or lands at one of the fifty busiest airports, and most of it at the twenty-four major hubs. As Dallas-Fort Worth, Dulles, Denver, and O'Hare become saturated with travelers and airplanes, one canceled flight means passengers sitting in the hallways and filling the standby lists for subsequent flights. Weather delays in one part of the country have ripple effects thousands of miles away.

Those who can pay enough for first-class seats and last-minute tickets can better fit travel to their own schedules. And those who can amortize the cost of a corporate jet see airplanes as the miracles of freedom they originally were. One springtime evening when I was living in Seattle, I took a ride in a ten-passenger jet owned by a software billionaire who was going to Monterey, California, for a dinner meeting—and coming back the same night. He and I and one other guest bound for the dinner left Seattle around five, spent two hours in the air each way, were flown by a team of two professional pilots, and were back a little past midnight. The fastest connection on a commercial airline, with a change in San Francisco, would have meant leaving Seattle at 1:00 p.m. and getting back at noon the next day. But that private jet had cost well over $10 million, and the direct operating costs for the trip were well over $12,000 not counting the pilots' pay.

There have been few dramatic changes in large-aircraft design since the 1960s, when the Concorde and the Boeing 747 made their debuts. But planes from Boeing and Airbus have become ever more efficient, more reliable, less polluting, quieter. Despite occasional horrific crashes, modern airliners are about the safest means of travel ever devised. Airline pilots may sound like corny travel guides when they come onto the intercom, and through the vast majority of a flight they do little more than monitor the engine gauges, autopilots, and "moving map" displays of where the plane is heading. But to have any knowledge at all of the world of flying is to respect the experience, judgment, and training that airline pilots must accumulate. No other group of professionals is retrained and retested so frequently. An oddly compelling book called The Black Box (1998), edited by Malcolm MacPherson, consists of little more than cockpit transcripts from flights that encountered serious trouble. In most cases the planes crashed and everyone died; in a few the pilots brought them in with minimal damage. In virtually all the cases the competence of the crews as they tried to cope with disaster must be called heroic.

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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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