The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


The End of Flight as We Know It


Between fuel prices, terrorism and the environment,  air travel is losing altitude fast. In the not-too-distant future, plane rides will be a luxury for those at the top of the economic pyramid.


At Bacon’s Rebellion and SYNERGY/Planning there has been extensive discussion of surface transport – streets, roadways, tollways, rails, waterways. There also is something important about the future of Mobility and Access to be learned from all the ink and bytes spilled over the current air transport crisis.

Air travel is a bellwether that will illuminate fundamental truths about the escalating Mobility and Access Crisis and the future of transport via vehicles.

In spite of huge, continuing, subsidies and no attempt outside the European Union to fairly allocate the environmental impacts of airplanes, airline Enterprises are in deep financial trouble. In the last few months half a dozen airlines have filed for bankruptcy. Two major airline Enterprises have agreed to merge to avoid bankruptcy.  “Analysts” are predicting that many more “consolidations” are on the horizon. (See End Note One.)


Things are not going smoothly for the Enterprises that are still flying. Several major airlines have grounded some or most of their flights because they had avoided safety inspections. Between 12 March and 12 April, according to WaPo, about 4,000 flights were canceled and 400,000 passengers stranded. Air worthiness of planes in service came to light only after an FAA inspector blew the whistle on one of the most profitable airline Enterprises.


Last week the FAA administrator was again on the hot seat before congress because he was not assuring citizens got what they want: cheap, safe, on-time flights. Now the Secretary of Transportation says there needs to be better oversight.


There have been some bizarre and disturbing events. A pilot put a bullet through the fuselage of a plane he was flying. A former air marshal has called safety training a joke. There are a number of disturbing trends: flight delays, flight cancellations, over-bookings and an increase in the number of bags lost or stolen.


All the while, the price of air travel keeps going up but not fast enough for airline Enterprises to make a profit.   Those who travel a lot will tell you they are not enjoying what they get for their money. The schedules, load factors, seat design and staff morale/training all make air travel a nightmare compared to the days when we averaged four commercial flights a week in the late '70s.


The age of the current aircraft fleet and the quality of the aircraft maintenance are the prime drivers of discomfort and the prevalence of Chronic Air Travel Disease. These realities indicate that the airlines that have not yet filed for bankruptcy are hanging on by their fingernails. (See End Note Two.)


Everyone needs to face the fact that airline Enterprises have not recovered from 11 Sept 2001, nor from the dog- eat-dog competition that followed deregulation. But continued regulation or re-regulation will not solve the problem. Over the past year, thankfully, there have been no airplane fatalities but a lot of other things have been going wrong. What is happening here and how does it relate to Mobility and Access via vehicles?


Airline Enterprises have run out of rope. “Supercapitalism”-driven competition has run the best minds in the industry out of tricks: The reality is:

There is no way to have “low cost, safe, convenient flights.” No amount of traditional subsidy or oversight can mask realty. The only way that there can be safe, on-time air travel is for every ticket to cost far more than it has in the past.

But there is a larger context. Always a master of understatement, James Howard Kunstler puts the context of air – and all vehicle – travel this way:

“The world is about to become a larger place again. Globalism is toast. Caught up in raptures of credit-fueled discount shopping, few Americans realize how profoundly our society is about to change. We are sleepwalking into a permanent global energy crisis that will compel us to live much more locally than we have for generation. We face a desperate need to reconstruct local networks of economic relations – and we should have begun this great task yesterday.”

The solution to the air travel crisis – and to Mobility and Access Crisis in general – is not new technology, less government control, more subsidies or money for more facilities. The solution is coming to grips with the fact that there will be less vehicle travel in the future and that all vehicle travel it will cost much more. That is especially clear for air travel.  There is brave talk about innovation in aviation, such as smaller jets flying from dispersed airports directly to where travelers want to go. Great ideas but they omit one thing:

The Wealth gap.

Robert Reich’s data in “Supercapitalism” documents that fewer and fewer can afford the shelter that is now available on the market, much less flying off to Rio or to the Homestead. (See “The Sky Car Myth,” 15 November 2004.)


A growing number of people have a problem just paying for food. One reason is the diversion of agricultural land from food production to the production of fuel for vehicles.


The bottom line is that in the future fewer and fewer citizens will be able to afford air travel. When the total cost of aircraft operations – including environmental impact – are fairly allocated almost no one will. The Airline industry has not yet faced this reality.


We all should have seen it coming. If you did not hear the airplane door slam shut for all but a few at the top of the economic food chain in September of 2001, you surely heard it in November of 2003 when the Concorde SST stopped flying. (See End Note Three.)


We are not happy about the end of the age of flight. We are thrilled that we were able to live in the era of expansive flight opportunities. We love to fly and have jumped into every private, military and commercial aircraft that was available to us. We worked as aerial observer looking for fires and lost climbers in Northern Rockies, we flew into most places where one could land a Cherokee 6 from Port Au Prince to St Kits and into almost every commercial port from San Juan to Port of Spain. We crossed the Atlantic and half the Pacific over 30 times. Domestic flights for business and pleasure numbered in the hundreds per year in the '70s.


But good things that consume a lot of energy are coming to an end. Cumulative consumption has burned through the Earth’s natural capital. Citizens are facing the end of air travel as it has been known it since World War II.


Air travel reality is not a new topic in our professional work. Following the October 1973 OPEC oil embargo, it should have been clear that all vehicle travel – on land, water and in the air – would change. During the '80s we worked for clients who realized that Dulles Airport was a critical economic engine for the northern part of Virginia.  We worked to secure the best possible ground access, the best possible terminal and the best possible air-side design so these facilities could be married with the best runways east of the Mississippi to create a World Class airport. We represented client interests on Dulles committees and task force for 15 years. We co-chaired the Dulles Task Force’s Airport Access Committee.


In the '80s it was also clear that travel under 1,000 miles was most efficiently provided on the ground and in shared vehicles – probably on rails. Further, it was obvious that extra airports were a waste. We worked for the organizations helping former Virginia Senator Clive DuVal II carry out his “support Dulles for the economy and close National for safety, noise and efficiency” campaign.

One of our key strategies was to sell National airport and use proceeds to build a high-capacity shared-vehicle system to get passengers and workers to Dulles airport.

During the second week of September 2001 Linda and I were in London. We were shopping on Regent Street the day before our scheduled return when a customer came into the discount china shop and asked the clerk if she had heard that an airplane had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York. There was a Bang and Olafson store a few doors down and we watched as BBC broadcast the tape of the first plane and, as we recall, saw the second plane live.


Needless to say, we did not catch our scheduled flight out of Heathrow the next day. If one has to be stranded in a “foreign” region, London would be a good first choice. Before the airplanes were flying again we had lots of time in Hyde Park and in nearby pubs to consider the skyways ahead.


We came home and renewed the suggestion that it was time to rethink the whole idea of air travel and unneeded airports. It seemed obvious that the role of air travel had to fundamentally change. Some did not even return our calls and others suggested that it was “unpatriotic” to say air travel would be impacted by terrorism. In fact it was the economics and physics of air travel, not terrorism, that doomed the golden age of flight.


Since 2001 we, and others have not flown as we used to. While the data is not well publicized, from time to time one sees reference to “air travel being almost back to pre-2001 levels.” On this past Thursday, members of Congress were grilling FAA administrator as to why he was “not protecting the interests of air passengers.” There is no way to “protect” air travelers without charging them far more per passenger mile – directly or indirectly. If the costs are fairly allocated, the cost of air travel will rise exponentially.


Historians may determine that the current federal-level governance practitioners, elected and appointed, are the most incompetent since the administrations of Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur. The actions by the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture and Homeland Security would seem support that assessment.


On the other hand, history may document that they are simply ideologues who have been given an impossible task – “give citizens what they think they want.” In this case safe, convenient air travel with low (“cheap,” “reasonable”) fares, is just not possible.


The same is true for quick, easy or affordable “solutions” to ground travel congestion given dysfunctional human settlement patterns. It cannot be done.


James Howard Kunstler’s words were directed at the need for a new vision of Alpha Community economics outlined by Michael Shuman in “The Small-Mart Revolution” and the importance of place advocated by Richard Florida in his new book, the title of which is so bad we will not repeat it in a Household-friendly column.


Did someone say “Fundamental Change?”


-- April 21, 2008



End Notes


(1). A recent story on Consolidations in the industry says it all: “Will Mergers Fly? Airlines Want to Cut Costs and Lift Stock Values, But Lawmakers Worry about Higher Prices and the Potential of Loss of Jobs and Service.” Guess what: Costs will be cut but stock values will not go up, prices will be higher, jobs will be lost and service will deteriorate.


(2). Among those who are forced to travel often in small, “commuter” planes for long distances, there is a rumor that there exists something called Severe Acute Air Travel Syndrome (SAATS) or Chronic Air Travel Disease (aka, CATD). They claim it is a wholly preventable wasting disease caused by the design and maintenance of aircraft.  SAATS or CATD is thought to be most often spread by “small airplanes.” “Commuter” aircraft are pressed by competitive pressures into long haul service for which they were not designed. Cramped cabins, high load factors, under-capacity air handlers and long flights result in every passenger sharing every virus and every bacterium that any passenger has encountered in the past month. Poor maintenance means these pathogens are shared with every passenger who has been on the plane over the past two months.


(3). “Space travel” is the epitome of conspicuous, wasteful consumption for those at the top of the economic food chain.  See “Still No Exit,” 2 July 2007. 













Ed Risse and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


Read his profile here.