Planes, trains, and air taxis
Copyright © 2002 ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights reserved. Copyright American Prospect Jan 1-Jan 14, 2002
Planes, Trains, and Air Taxis
BY EAMONN FINGLETON
Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel
By James Fallows. Public Affairs, 256 pages, $25.00
Breaking Gridlock: Moving toward Transportation That Works
By Jim Motavalli. Sierra Club Books, 304 pages, $23.00
IF EVER THERE WERE A TIME FOR top-to-bottom reassessment of the U.S. transportation system, now is that time. James Fallows’s Free Flight, published last summer, and Jim Motavalli’s just-released Breaking Gridlock provide stimulating insights into the ways better technology and sensible planning might come together to improve methods of travel.
Fallows offers a forward-looking account of how technological innovation promises to transform the small-airplane industry. Motavalli attempts an ambitious overview of the entire transportation landscape. Ranging widely from antsy cyclists and gridlocked motorists to fast trains and “green” buses, Motavalli’s story is inevitably a less cheery one. His conclusion in the last chapter: “We’ve taken just about every wrong turn in building a transportation network in America.”
Fallows makes the most of his more congenial material. In his view, air travel is on the verge of a new golden age as new technologies promise to make small planes cheaper and safer. Flying from one small airport to another, such planes will increasingly liberate travelers from the hurry-up-and-wait frustrations of the big airlines’ hub-and-spoke system.
In building his case, Fallows frequently draws on his own knowledge as a pilot. This adds to the authority and interest of the book, but occasionally one senses that he is writing as an avowed enthusiast. Civilians-as the enthusiasts refer to the rest of us-may occasionally wonder whether the revolution will turn out to be quite as sweeping as Fallows and his fellow flyers hope.
But after decades of stagnation in aircraft building, it’s clear that small planes are improving rapidly and becoming cheaper. Some of the new planes described by Fallows sell for as little as onethird the price of equivalent models of just a few years ago. That hardly puts them in the Volkswagen Beetle class, but it undeniably opens up some interesting market possibilities.
Small planes are also becoming safer. Until recently, purchasing a low-cost plane meant buying a propeller plane powered by a traditional-and traditionally temperamental-piston engine, as opposed to the more reliable jet engine. A typical propeller plane requires an engine only slightly more powerful than that of a luxury car. But piston engines have more independently moving parts than jet engines and therefore more chance of things going wrong.
How can small planes be made safer? As Fallows reports, one innovative solution now being implemented involves equipping piston-engine planes with parachutes. If the engine conks out, the parachute can be opened to allow the entire craft to float down to a safe-if perhaps undignified-re-encounter with terra firma. Fallows plausibly posits the idea that such fail-safe propeller planeshe calls them “Macintoshes of the air,” after Apple Computer’s crash-resistant computers-will widen the appeal of flying. Tired of the hassle and delays of the hub-and-spoke system, many lessthan-swashbuckling professionals and small-business owners will pluck up the courage to own their own wings.
Of course, parachutes are a solution that calls to mind the danger of engine failure. Not surprisingly, aeronautical engineers have long dreamed of a more intellectually satisfying answer: a new breed of small planes powered by suitably compact jet engines. Fallows reports that tiny jet engines, long considered an aviation oxymoron, are now a reality. And as small jet planes go into service-probably beginning in 2003-we can expect to see a major new industry in which professional pilots provide jet-powered air-taxi services to and from small airports around the United States.
The new planes will be to today’s commercial planes what Yellow Cabs are to a city’s fleet of buses. Whereas the parachute-equipped propeller planes can accommodate no more than three paying passengers, the smallest of the new microjets will accommodate five. And they will fly faster and farther than propeller planes. What’s more, because they will be able to fly higher than propeller planes, they will be less vulnerable to severe weather, which, as Fallows explains, is a frequent contributing factor in propellerplane crashes.
FALLOWS TAKES US BEHIND THE scenes to share in the hopes and heartaches of two pioneering aircraft companies-one developing parachute-equipped propeller planes and the other cheap microjets.
Duluth-based Cirrus Design Corporation, the company developing the plane with the parachute, is already marketing a fully developed version of its concept. In an effort to cut the cost of its planes (which were launched with a selling price of a mere $150,000), Cirrus is pioneering the use of composite materials instead of aluminum for the aircraft’s shell-an advance that greatly reduces manufacturing costs. Its planes also boast new “moving map” navigational displays that show the pilot where he is and where he is headed. These devices, which are similar to those that are now increasingly used in cars, are keyed to the Global Positioning System developed in the 1970S by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They simplify the job for pilots.
One of Cirrus’s main rivals is Eclipse Aviation, a corporation based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that is developing microjets. Whereas Cirrus has from the start suffered the normal lot of aviation innovators in being chronically underfinanced, Eclipse is the industry’s equivalent of a wealthy debutante. Staked by, among others, Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Eclipse is working with advanced jet-engine technology originally developed for NASA. Thus, the Eclipse story is a classic example of a successful partnership between the private and the public sectors and as such is a reminder that even in the fiercely individualistic world of small-plane enthusiasts there is an important role for government. (NASA has spent about $180 million over the last decade or so on projects to stimulate various aspects of the smallplane revolution, according to Fallows.)
Eclipse’s technology employs dozens of minor breakthroughs in a host of different engine parts-compressors, combustion chambers, control systems, and so on. One major advance is a new system for making an entire compressor from a single, very precisely engineered piece of titanium. This contrasts with traditional compressors, which may contain as many as several thousand parts, hundreds of which are separate fan blades. Among other advantages, the new one-piece compressors weigh less. And weight reduction is, of course, the Holy Grail in aerospace design.
Expressed in terms of the computer analogy Fallows favors, Eclipse and its engine builder, Detroit-based Williams International, are doing for aeronautical engineering roughly what Intel did for microprocessors. A key issue is “tip clearances”-the distance between the end of the spinning turbine blades and the casing in which they are housed. By reducing tip clearances to ever more microscopic levels, engineers can harvest utterly disproportionate improvements in engine efficiency. Williams has now reduced such clearances to previously undreamed-of levels.
For anyone who understands how deeply America’s advanced manufacturing industries-once the world standard-have been hollowed out by Japan and Germany in recent years, Fallows’s description of the high-security Williams factory is stirring stuff. “I felt I had been transported to some pre-1968, pre-riotand-disruption version of America,” he reports. “Perhaps this is the way Project Apollo factories looked in the early sixties. Teamwork in an observable, mechanical sense, carried out by people who were continually solving new technical challenges.”
Donning his pilot’s cap, Fallows tells us that a plane’s stall speed has major implications for his story. The lower a plane’s stall speed, the more slowly it can be flown in its final approach to an airport landing strip. Slower means safer, of course. More important for Fallows’s story, the more slowly a plane can come in, the shorter the necessary runway. Thus, although most jets cannot be safely landed on short runways, Eclipse’s jet, with a stall speed of just 62 knots, is comparable to a propeller plane. It can be landed on a runway as short as 2,500 feet-which means that virtually all of America’s 6,000plus local airports can accommodate it, and with little if any need for investment in new infrastructure.
CLEARLY, THE ECONOMIC RATIONale for extensive point-to-point travel by small jets is hard to fault. Viewed in the context of America’s overall transportation problems, however, the small-plane revolution will hardly be a panacea. For all the efforts of innovators like Cirrus and Eclipse, travel by small plane will likely remain comparatively expensive. Eclipse, for instance, estimates that jet-powered air-taxi services will typically charge some 25 to 50 cents per mile above what the big airlines charge today for coach. On a 600-mile trip, that means an extra $150 to $300. Businessclass passengers will certainly reach for that, particularly when, as will often be the case, they get large reductions in door-to-door journey times. Citing Eclipse’s estimates, Fallows suggests that the air-taxi market might amount to 30 million trips a year within a decade. That would mean a fleet of no fewer than 35,000 small jets. But these would still account for no more than about lo percent of all projected airline traffic.
This leaves an awful lot of ordinary folk who, for the sake of the cheapest fares, will continue to fly with the big airlines and battle their way through the hated hubs. For the moment, the chill that has fallen on air travel since September 11 has taken some of the pressure off the system. But in the longer term, something major will have to be done to make travel within the U.S. less stressful.
That something will have to be bigger than merely dealing with jets and airports. The key is to get different modes of travel to work better together (the almost total absence of rail links to airports, for instance, is a particularly glaring example of America’s chronic failure to view its transportation infrastructure in its entirety).
In that sense, Jim Motavalli’s book, in attempting a unified-field view of transportation, is helpful. And when it comes to the transportation system’s effects on the environment, Motavalli is in full command of his material. (He is the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine and fills his bibliography with works from the likes of Ray Suarez, Paul Hawken, and Amory and Hunter Lovins.)
In the great debate between the highway and rail lobbies, Motavalli stands staunchly with the embattled rail buffs. He is also a strong proponent of improved city transit services. He has, he tells us, ridden trains in India, Japan, Brazil, and even North Africa. Although he claims not to be moved by nostalgia, he evidently makes an exception for railroads. He confesses, for instance, to having made a reverential visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see where the eponymous Choo Choo was headed. (He needn’t have bothered. No passenger trains serve Chattanooga anymore and the station building has now been redeveloped as a slightly bizarre hotel.)
Motavalli reports enthusiastically on recent developments in fast-train technology in Japan and France, noting, for instance, that one French train recently achieved a speed of Sao miles per hour. By comparison, even America’s most impressive fast-rail venture, the new 150mile-an-hour Acela service connecting Boston, New York City, and Washington, seems tame. In truth, most American fastrail proposals in recent years have ended up in some Republican state governor’s trash can. A particularly lamentable case in point is in Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush has been busy playing Voldemort to the proposed high-speed Florida Overland Express (FOX).
In trying to build an efficient national transportation policy, someone, somewhere, should be assigned to watch the forest as well as the trees. What is needed is a policy that serves people rather than interest groups. America’s recent transportation policy has been to have no policy. In different ways, both Fallows and Motavalli show us why laissez-faire has its limitations.
EAMONN FINGLETON is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity. He writes about trade at his Web site, the Sustainable Communities Network, at www.unsustainable.org.
Flying from one small-city airport to another, small jets could liberate business travelers from the hurry-up-andwait frustrations of the big airlines’ hub-and-spoke system.
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