Online Edition: Winter 2001/2002

Free Flight by James Fallows

Free Flight

From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel

James Fallows

Public Affairs ($25)

Air Rage

Crisis in the Skies

Anonymous and Andrew R. Thomas

Prometheus Books ($20)

by Peter Ritter

J ames Fallows, the Atlantic Monthly's national correspondent, is flying his private airplane on a transcontinental jaunt when he's hit by a revelation: Why on earth doesn't everyone just get their own jet? Surely it would cut down on congestion at the nation's airports, wean America from its reliance on foreign-grown peanuts, and usher our great Republic into a golden age of robot maids and self-tying sneakers. This fleet of personal planes, Fallows excitedly predicts in his new book, Free Flight, will allow the hoi polloi to travel in the manner to which only the loftiest CEOs are now accustomed, "in greater comfort, without fighting their way to and from the crowded hubs, leaving from the small airport that's closest to their home or office and flying direct to the small airport closest to where they really want to go."

One can't really fault Fallows for his timing; he had no way of knowing that, by the time his book was published, a good percentage of the American population would have sworn off flying altogether. Nor could he have known that the New Economy, which tended to support such pie-in-the-sky schema, would be Old News. Still, Fallows's book already seems weirdly dated: It reads as the relic of another age, like one of those "Fast Company" articles explaining how www.socksbymail.com was going to revolutionize business. Fallows may be heralding a revolution in transportation on par with the advent of the automobile, but, at least for now, history seems to have dumped him on the curb.

The sea change Fallows prescribes in Free Flight comes in two waves. First, in response to increasing air congestion, companies will begin to build cheaper, more reliable small airplanes. These planes will then become the basis of an air-taxi network operating out of the nation's underutilized small airports. This, in Fallows's estimation, ought to correct some of the blunders of airline industry deregulation--particularly the disastrous hub-and-spoke system, that triumph of human logic wherein flights from Chicago to Boston are routed through Atlanta.

As an example of this new breed of plane manufacturer, Fallows makes a close study of Duluth, Minnesota-based Cirrus Design. (The company also happens to have built Fallows's shiny new plane, a fact which, in the days before New Economy synergy, might have been considered a journalistic no-no). Cirrus's particular innovation is the SR20, a small airplane with an emergency parachute built in--certainly a handy convenience if every idiot and his brother is going to be using one for the morning commute.

Meanwhile, rich people--Fallows uses the more democratic term "enthusiast"--will have access to the fabulous new jets built by New Mexico's Eclipse Aviation, a spin-off of the defense contractor Williams International with close ties to NASA. (The fact that Williams is also the company responsible for the motors that fly cruise missiles is not a very exciting synergy from the perspective of the prospective passenger). Fallows gets considerably less access to Eclipse than he does to Cirrus: The company will, in fact, only allow him into their factory on the condition that he does not describe what he sees there. It hardly matters, of course: Unless Eclipse is reverse-engineering flying saucers, there's no reason for anyone outside the industry to care what goes on in their factory. And Fallows seems to have dropped the pretense of investigative journalism by this point anyway; even if Eclipse was churning out saucers, one suspects he would be fawning over the potential of the company's "disruptive technology [to] change the way we travel."

In the same way that New Economy boosters seemed to willfully disregard the verities of business--particularly the fact that companies have to make money to keep from going bankrupt--Fallows often seems to turn a blind eye to the realities of airline travel. He does not take into account, for instance, that airlines--many of which have been periodically bailed out by taxpayers throughout their existence--are notoriously low-margin concerns. If American and United can't break even stuffing their 757s like cattle cars, how is a start-up carrier going to make a go of it shuttling four people between Sioux Falls and Wichita? Nor does Free Flight propose solutions for the massive pollution and congestion a fleet of small planes would engender. Only on the last page of the book does Fallows even acknowledge that planes guzzle fossil fuels and make lots of noise. The 2R20 may be a sophisticated cart, but it's still not going anywhere without the horse.

Free Flight by Anonymous and Andrew R. Thomas

The problems with Free Flight are those endemic to a lot of American utopian thinking: It's so impressed with the possibility of technology to solve problems that it ignores simpler solutions. Might some measure of federal regulation not be the best way to ease airport congestion, for instance? And the easiest way to cut economic inefficiencies in air travel is not to build thousands of small planes, but to travel less: Instead of buying faster corporate jets, perhaps American businesses should simply reconsider the wasteful habit of buzzing across the continent for lunch meetings. In any case, Fallows's point may be moot: At this point, with the large carriers foundering, a transportation renaissance is further off than ever. Like the New Economy's free-fall, Free Flight offers an instructive lesson in utopianism: When your head is in the clouds, you're less likely to notice that you're about to walk off a cliff.

However, on this point, Fallows's book is irrefutable: Even before we had to worry about some hijacker purposely crashing our planes, air travel was a pretty unpleasant experience. Since coach-class seats are designed for teenage Russian gymnasts and airline food is mostly unidentifiable muck, flying is, for the average passenger, an ordeal to be endured rather than a rare pleasure. For those with expense accounts, of course, there is business class, an Elysium of dry martinis and wet towels. Airplanes are perhaps the most stratified spaces left in our democratic society. The haves are even spared the sight of the have-nots by that little blue curtain.

One might suspect that a revolt of the unwashed masses in steerage would therefore account for many of the incidents reported in Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies, the Cassandra to Fallows's Pollyanna, by journalist Andrew Thomas and Anonymous, "an expert in a top-level aviation-oversight organization." In fact, most air rage outbursts seem to happen in the rarefied confines of first-class: Rock stars biting flight attendants; businessmen drinking too much comp champagne and deciding it would be a good idea to open the cabin doors at 30,000 feet. We of the proletariat ought to take some perverse pride in the fact that rich people seem to do the lion's share of the misbehaving.

The problem, according to the authors of Air Rage, is that they also tend to get away with it: Because air-rage incidents are generally prosecuted under civil rather than criminal law, the fines for throwing a tantrum are often perfunctory. Their point might be better received, though, if they weren't publishing the written equivalent of a "20/20 Downtown" segment. Hyperbole reigns--"The din of complaints about airline service is becoming deafening." Generalization dominates--"Public expressions of discontent, despair, and detachment have seemingly become everyday occurrences in our stressed-out and overloaded lives." Language suffers--"too" becomes "to", and "they're" is miraculously transformed into "their." That Anonymous, a top-level expert in airline safety, neglected to use spell-check before publishing his book is maybe the most distressing thing about Air Rage.

Nor, unfortunately, are Anonymous's solutions anywhere near as creative as his grammar. Even before our current troubles, Air Rage's prescription would have seemed laughably self-evident: Malefactors ought to be prosecuted under criminal statues; the FAA and airlines should keep better track of incidents; people shouldn't drink so much during flights; and non-pilots shouldn't be allowed into airplane cockpits. Well, duh. Still, it's cause for some terrestrial indignation that it takes a tragedy to get even such basic ideas off the ground.

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Winter 2001/2002 Table of Contents