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.
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."