Monday, December 12, 2011

Time to Reconsider Air Travel

As long as we're in the mood for making open claims on behalf of sweeping change (if also without specific demands), here's my contribution:

It was a beautiful thing to see, aircraft climbing, wheels up, wings pivoting back, the light, the streaked sky, three of four of us, not a word spoken.

—Don DeLillo, "Hammer and Sickle"

In the above sentence from his new collection of stories, Don DeLillo aptly describes the sublimity of human aviation. But this story is about prisoners, who are on work detail cleaning up the tarmac of an Air Force base. Here, as in so many scenes in DeLillo's novels, DeLillo seems to be urging us to take the time to reconsider air travel.

With the announcement earlier this month that American Airlines will file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it is time to reconsider air travel. On November 29 a New York Times article about the parent company of American Airlines, AMR, noted “AMR’s financial health has been eroding for years.”

Indeed, if we want to resort to metaphors of health, we are talking about an entire industry that appears to be afflicted with chronic financial problems. Based on the bankruptcy record of nearly all major airlines, it is demonstrably the case that flight is neither a sustainable nor an economically viable mode of mass human transit.

The accomplishments of flight over the twentieth-century were impressive, to say the least. The relative achievements over the first decade of the twenty-first-century have been regressive at best (e.g., multi-hour tarmac waits), and invasive at worst (e.g., full body scans).

Scott McCartney’s recent Wall Street Journal column “The Middle Seat” celebrated Singapore's Changi International Airport as “arguably the world’s most fabulous airport.” McCartney goes on to laud such features as “comfortable areas for sleeping or watching TV, premium bars, work desks and free Internet. A nap room is about $23 for three hours; a shower can be had for $6.” In short, what McCartney finds so alluring and “fabulous” about Changi are precisely the banalities of everyday life on the ground.

Why is it that we find this level of bare life so surprising (and valuable) in airports, as if we have lost touch with our showers and beds at home?

At the extreme end of this line of inquiry, a front-page New York Times headline on Saturday December 3 stated, provocatively, “Hot on the Trail of ‘Just Right’ Far-Off Planet.” Scientists, it seems, may be on the verge of discovering remote planets that lie within the “habitable zone.”

But wait: we live on one of those planets! We have airlines filing for bankruptcy on one of those planets, and airports that simulate ordinary life on one of those planets! Perhaps it is time to really reconsider all of our air travels. It may very well sound like an outlandish question, but what would it take to stop dumping resources and energy into mass air transit, and instead to reinvest in our lives on the ground, on this planet? It is a question worth taking seriously.