Saturday, July 19, 2008

The future of air travel

I thought of leaving the body of the post blank as an ironic comment, but decided this needed a few more words.

A few years ago, Greyhound pulled bus service from numerous cities, claiming that they were no longer profitable routes. The near-universal train service that we used to be able to take for granted has become problematic. The main reason: inexpensive air service that went with minimal stops at reasonable fares.

My brother-in-law is traveling from Binghamton, NY to Chicago next week, and this trip of 750 miles is difficult no matter how he goes. By train, he would have to find his way to Syracuse, then spend 13 hours on an Amtrak train (and the highest probability is that the train will be late). He can take Greyhound, but that's a minimum of 16-1/2 hours with two layovers. He can (and will) go by air, but, for a decent fare, that involves 7-1/2 hours (plus the time he needs to get to the airport and stand in line) and stops in Philadelphia and Raleigh (!).

I suppose we should stand in awe, consider the reality that 200 years ago such a trip would take weeks. But this inconvenience is a loss, an acceptable one perhaps, but a loss.

And this is true of a lot of what is happening now that gas prices are so high. I've seen a lot of articles virtually gushing over the changes in the American lifestyle. Many of these things are commendable, but each one comes with a cost (and some of what seems attractive in May or June is going to seem like a huge burden in January - have fun commuting by bike). Bicycles are slower than cars, so shopping trips and commuting by bike leave less time for other activities.

Our lifestyle evolved over a long time, and was based on certain assumptions about the price and availability of energy. If those assumptions are changing, and I think they are, the lifestyle will have to change also. Cloth bags instead of plastic seem small enough, but, when the pickle jar leaks, the bag that would have been easily thrown away will now have to be cleaned. I certainly don't mind that the soccer moms will have to eschew the heater while Janie is at practice, but there is a cost to them.

Air travel in particular is going to change, and it will alter everything from the nature of business to the universe of vacations a family can consider. Has America had it too easy? Perhaps, but it's what we've known, what most of us have grown up with. I love St. Louis as a short destination, but that doesn't mean I feel a loss when I "have" to go there on vacation instead of, say, Paris. I doubt that we've even scratched the surface of the costs we're going to see over the next 10 - 20 years, and I'll be very surprised if our belated aggressive alternate energy programs will make up for that.

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