Free Flight

Inventing the Future of Travel

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By James Fallows

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The troubles of the airline system have become acute in the post-terrorist era. As the average cost of a flight has come down in the last twenty years, the airlines have survived by keeping planes full and funneling traffic through a centralized hub-and-spoke routing system. Virtually all of the technological innovation in airplanes in the last thirty years has been devoted to moving passengers more efficiently between major hubs. But what was left out of this equation was the convenience and flexibility of the average traveler. Now, because of heightened security, hours of waiting are tacked onto each trip. As James Fallows vividly explains, a technological revolution is under way that will relieve this problem. Free Flight features the stories of three groups who are inventing and building the future of all air travel: NASA, Cirrus Design in Duluth, Minnesota, and Eclipse Aviation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. These ventures should make it possible for more people to travel the way corporate executives have for years: in small jet planes, from the airport that’s closest to their home or office directly to the airport closest to where they really want to go. This will be possible because of a product now missing from the vast array of flying devices: small, radically inexpensive jet planes, as different from airliners as personal computers are from mainframes. And, as Fallows explains in a new preface, a system that avoids the congestion of the overloaded hub system will offer advantages in speed, convenience, and especially security in the new environment of air travel.

Excerpt

Praise for Free Flight
"James Fallows thinks there is a cure [for modern air travel] and he is admirably qualified to describe it: he is not just a top journalist, but also an amateur pilot, and his book is built around a heart-stopping description of flight across America. Free Flight makes some fascinating tours along the way."
—The Economist
 
 
"I read Free Flight in a single sitting—in the sitting area at Gate B24 at the Cincinnati airport, while waiting for an all-day-long 'equipment problem' to be resolved. It not only made me wish I had Jim Fallows's writing and analytical skills, but also made me want to go out and get my private pilot's license, as he has. What a great book and what great ideas he's got to solve the modern hell we call air travel. "P.S. I do hope that's not his plane with the open parachute."
Christopher Buckley, author of Little Green Men
 
 
"When the brilliant James Fallows turns his gaze to aviation, we can all feel privileged to go for the ride. Free Flight is a courageous work, an expression of hope for a whole new world of flight, and a compelling exploration of the changes already under way. It is classic Fallows, per- formed with an ease that no other writer could achieve. Everyone should read it."
William Langewiesche, author of Inside the Sky
 
 
"Passionately welcomes the George Jetson-like transformation of air travel."
—The Chicago Tribune
 
 
"Once the phrase 'jet set' brought to mind beautiful people lounging on the beaches of St. Tropez. Now jets are little more than utilitarian conveyances in which rumpled sales reps thumb through SkyMall catalogs. "It doesn't have to be that way. In Free Flight, journalist James Fallows suggests a radical solution: small personal planes that would allow us all to drive ourselves along highways in the sky or hail sky taxis to do the driving for them."
—The Wall Street Journal
 
 
"The next time you're breathing barely recycled air and jammed shoulder to shoulder with a couple hundred head of fellow travelers, ask the question that James Fallows poses in Free Flight: Why is commercial air travel practically the one industry that's bucked the trend of the past two decades and become more rigid and less convenient?... As usual, Fallows's writing is clear to the point of translucence, and his path through difficult terrain is admirably direct and sure-footed. This is explanatory journalism of the best sort."
—The Portland Oregonian
 
 
"James Fallows has always taken on the big topics, and Free Flight addresses the shared agony of us all. With his trademark grace and out-of-the-box thinking, Fallows analyzes the morass of airline travel and chronicles the cutting edge designers and plane-builders attempting to fix a crippled system. If you're stuck in a hub and furious at your airline, buy this book."
—Rinker Buck, author of Flight of Passage and First Job
 
 
"Fallows argues his case with authority.... Free Flight has the whole lowdown. It will make you impatient for the day when an air-taxi service sets up shop near your home."
—BusinessWeek
 
 
"Most of us see just a little bit of the aviation world. Jim Fallows, one of the most perceptive writers in America today, brings us a whole new level of understanding of aviation, why it is very different from other industries, and why we are all so very passionate about it."
—Eric Schmidt, chairman of Novell and Google
 
 
"A national air-taxi system is a lovely idea. Fallows makes an articulate, winning case for it."
—The Washington Post Book World
 
 
"The personal computer revolutionized the computer industry—and empowered its user base—by putting power into the hands of individuals. Free Flight is about the pioneers who aim to do the same thing for aviation—giving power and freedom back to the individual flyer. Imagine free flight—not free of aircraft, but free of complex routes through hubs and spokes, free of airport congestion, free of all those other travelers ... That's what Jim Fallows's book is about. "The only problem with this tantalizing glimpse is that it hasn't happened yet. This book makes you want to go out and put down a deposit on one of the new aircraft ... both to make your own life easier, and to help the aviation pioneers Fallows so ably describes."
Esther Dyson, author of Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age
 
 
"Fallows narrates in illustrative prose his own love affair with planes."
—Publishers Weekly
 
 
"Free Flight is an important book; it breaks news on a development that has attracted scant media attention. Among the countless writers whining about the continuing air travel nightmare, Fallows is among the first to suggest that we might awaken from it soon."
Warren Berger, Wired



For Deb,
The original Seven-One-One-Delta-Zulu,
 
 
And for her parents,
Angie and Frank Zerad



Acknowledgments
I will always be grateful to Ken Michelsen, a former marine pilot and a born teacher, for enduring "primary flight training" as my instructor. The steel nerves he displayed as he sat calmly in the right-hand seat of the cockpit, while the novice pilot in the left seat tried to learn how to land the plane, may have matched anything demanded of him in uniform. I am also very grateful to Chris Baker for training me in instrument flying and in handling the Cirrus SR20, and for instruction in spin recovery and basic aerobatics. Chris Jacobs gave me delightful lessons in flying pontoon planes in the Puget Sound. Gary Black, a former navy flier, introduced me to the way truly modern planes perform when we flew in a Cirrus from the Los Angeles area to Duluth in 1999.
Warren Morningstar, of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, nudged me out of indecision with a demo flight when I was not sure about starting flying lessons. Peter Pathe was a wonderful flying companion in Seattle. Others who have shared their enthusiasm for the subject include Dick Anderegg, Sharon and Damon Darlin, Julian Fischer, Tom Gibson, Eric and Heather Redman, Peter Rinearson, Sam Howe Verhovek, and Joe Yap.
The founders of the military reform movement of the early 1980s, Chuck Spinney, Pierre Sprey, and above all the late John Boyd, originally drew my interest to the question of how advanced technology could make airplanes faster, cheaper, safer, and simpler to operate, rather than ever more expensive and breakdown-prone. In my book National Defense I discussed the way this logic applied to military aircraft. In a sense the people I describe in Free Flight are civilian counterparts to those military reformers.
In Duluth and at Cirrus Design I appreciate the time, generosity, and cooperation of Kate Dougherty-Andrews, Lisa Bath, Ian Bentley, Tom Bergeron, Gary Black and Celeste Curley-Black, Cindy Brown, Mike Busch, Tom Cotruvo, Mayor Gary Doty, Paul Johnston, Alan and Dale Klapmeier, Chris Maddy, Tom Shea, Mike van Staagen, Pat Waddick, and others. Laurie Anderson was generous in talking about her late husband Scott.
At Williams International and Eclipse Aviation I spoke with many people and especially appreciate the help of Cory Canada, Dottie Hall, Oliver Masefield, and Vern Raburn. At NASA I am grateful for the time and help of Steve Campbell, Keith Henry, and especially Bruce Holmes. Tom Bowen of the Mooney Aircraft Corporation generously spent a day showing me how the fast, rugged Mooneys are built.
I benefited greatly from the comments that Lincoln Caplan, Garrett Gruener, Rich Karlgaard, Kevin Moore, Eric Schmidt, and Lawrence Wilkinson made on an earlier version of this book. At PublicAffairs, Peter Osnos, Robert Kimzey, and their colleagues produced the book with remarkable calm, agility, and skill. I had worked with William Whitworth for many years at the Atlantic Monthly and was delighted to have his counsel as editor of this book. My agent Wendy Weil was once again of great help. At the Atlantic, David Bradley, Avril Cornel, Michael Kelly, Corby Kummer, Cullen Murphy, Sue Parilla, Martha Spaulding, Wen Stephenson, Barbara Wallraff, and others helped me complete this project and generally made it a daily pleasure to be part of their enterprise. Katherine Bouton and Adam Moss of the New York Times Magazine encouraged me on an early version of the Cirrus Design story. I revised the book using a new version of Microsoft Word, for which I was on the product planning team early in 1999. I am grateful to all members of the Word development team for the new editing features they built in. I organized the research material for this book using an ingenious program called Zoot. I greatly admire its creator, Tom Davis of Lincoln, Vermont, and hope that others will try his product at www.zootsoftware.com.
As always, my main debt is to my family: my wife, Deb; our sons, Tom and Tad; and our parents, Jean and James A. Fallows of Redlands, California, and Angie and Frank Zerad of Englewood, Florida.
 
Berkeley, California



Preface to the Paperback Edition
At the time of Free Flight's original publication, the delay and inconvenience of the commercial airline system had actually improved slightly from the previous year. But this was not because the basic problems of hub-and-spoke congestion had been resolved. Instead, it was mainly because the slowdown of the American economy had sharply reduced demand for travel.
Three months later, assumptions about travel in general and airlines in particular were profoundly changed by the terrorist attacks of September 11. The arguments in favor of small aircraft as an alternative to airlines, and the concerns about such a shift, were different from what they had been before. Surprisingly, the overall effect of these changes is to make it more rather than less likely that small aircraft will play a significant role in a future transportation network. Concerns about security will make airline travel slower and less convenient in the future than it has been in the past. This will boost the role of any alternative to airlines—especially one, like an air-taxi system, that can offer security benefits.
In the immediate wake of the attacks, general aviation was naturally regarded with suspicion. To the public, it seemed startling and ominous that hijackers had freely enrolled in American flight schools. To anyone with experience at such schools, the presence of foreign students was perfectly ordinary. Because flight training is so much less expensive, and so much more readily available, in America than anywhere else, flight schools across the country are filled with students from Japan, Latin America, Western Europe, and the Middle East.
To the public, it also seemed frightening to learn how unsupervised certain parts of general aviation had been. In some ways aviation is more tightly regulated and supervised than other civilian activities. The IRS may not know whether I've moved to a new state until I file my taxes at the end of the year, but the FAA insists that pilots notify them of any change of address within thirty days. To maintain full flying privileges, I must be willing to prove to the federal government that I've had a physical exam every two years and a flight review at least that often, and that I've accomplished three nighttime landings every ninety days and six instrument approaches every six months, and that I've had certain parts of the airplane inspected every twelve months and others every twenty-four months and others every thirty days—and that I can produce documents proving all this on demand. But many aspects of using a small airplane have been essentially laissez-faire. If you stay away from big cities and military airspace and avoid flying into clouds, you are legally free to take a small airplane almost any place you want.
When terrorists showed that civilian airplanes could become weapons, the idea that people were roaming free with potentially threatening craft seemed intolerable. Commercial airline flights were shut down for several days after the attacks, but general aviation was flatly prohibited for weeks and tightly controlled for months. I had moved from Berkeley, California, to Washington, D.C., just before the attacks. Indeed, on the night of Sunday, September 9, a beautiful evening of glassy-smooth skies, I had flown with my wife in a little Cirrus airplane from Boston, where we had taken our son for his last year in college, to Washington, where we would unpack our belongings from the moving van. We passed a few miles east of New York, and the night sky was so clear that we talked about cruising right above Manhattan, as would have been allowed (at the right altitude) in those days. But we were in a hurry and thought: "We'll do it next time." We sped along to the Montgomery County Airpark in the Washington suburbs.
Through the next five weeks that airplane was grounded by federal order, along with several thousand others that happened to be parked in new no-fly zones around Washington, New York, and Boston. For another two months it could be used only under stringent controls. By the summer after the attacks, the federal government was still trying to figure out how uncontrolled a general aviation system its security agencies could live with.
Pilots could fly most places and use most airports, with the major exception of a large prohibited zone over Washington, D.C., and its environs. (Smaller, temporary no-fly zones had been declared in other parts of the country: for instance, over major football stadiums during game time.) But pilots obviously knew they were operating in a different environment with different assumptions. Before September 11, the main legal consequence an aviator feared was that the Federal Aviation Administration would take away his pilot's certificate because of a real or alleged violation of its rules. After the attacks, and especially after a teenager flew a small Cessna into a building in Tampa four months later, pilots were reminded in their preflight briefings that they could be intercepted by fighter planes, and if necessary shot down, if they went somewhere they should not.
In such circumstances, it might be natural to assume that the air-taxi concept, along with companies like Eclipse and Cirrus, would be casualties of the crackdown on terrorism. In fact, the opposite soon seemed to be the case. What the congested hub-and-spoke system had begun, in reducing the speed and attractiveness of airline travel, the stringent new security measures dramatically intensified. Charter-flight services were allowed to resume operation more quickly than other parts of general aviation, and as well-heeled customers tried to avoid new delays on the airlines, the charter business was strong. It was not the airlines' fault that they became the major domestic front in the battle against terrorists. Nonetheless that battle was likely to do major long-term damage to the airlines' prospects.
When airports first opened after the attacks, passengers were patient with the extra delays in security lines, and sympathetic with the airlines' plight. Patience and sympathy could not change the reality that, for the foreseeable future, airline travel will be slower than it used to be. Getting to the airport "two hours before flight time" had been a pro forma, routinely ignored request from international carriers. It became a prudent procedure, because of long and—worse—unpredictable delays at major airports. In April 2002 I arrived at SeaTac airport in Seattle at 9:30 A.M.—and by the time I got through check-in and security lines, barely made a flight at noon. That was an extreme case, but when such delays are even a possibility travelers need to build in the extra time.
By slowing travel, the new security regime unavoidably erodes the main advantage of using the airlines. This, in turn, will make several alternatives to airline trips more attractive. One alternative is simply not traveling. Businesses still need to coordinate plans, and salespeople still need to make presentations. So one unintended consequence of the antiterrorist measures may be to speed the invention of really effective "virtual meeting" systems. Another alternative is high-speed trains, in the parts of the country where geography and population favor them—for instance, along the Northeast Corridor, along the Pacific coast, in parts of the Midwest and Texas.
Another alternative is the car, which now can match or beat airline speeds for many business trips. And yet another is the air-taxi system, which wealthy customers soon began demanding as airline travel slowed down. The demand for charter flights—essentially, ad-hoc air taxis—rose by nearly one-third in the six months after the terrorist attacks. In April 2002 the Washington Post reported the formation of the "Executive Private Aircraft Corporation," which for $25,000 gave customers a share in private jets to take them back and forth between Washington and New York. "Post-September 11, there will be a lot of opportunity for start-up airlines," Darryl Jenkins, director of the aviation institute at George Washington University, told the Post's Shannon Henry. The story said that one customer "has become frustrated that trips that previously took an afternoon now cost her a day and a half .... While she isn't quite rich enough to afford her own jet, she does have the money to buy a quicker, easier flight." The company's founder is primarily
targeting travelers who fly first class but cannot afford their own private jet. But he is also going after a small but lucrative market that aviation experts say has grown since Sept. 11—executives, scientists and other employees who are deemed so critical to their firm's success that they are forbidden by corporate policy from flying commercial.1
Also in April, a consulting firm called Aviation Research Group/US released an updated five-year forecast for trends in jet airplane sales. The report noted that demand for jet charters and inquiries about fractional-ownership programs rose to "record numbers" after the September 11 attacks. Therefore it predicted that small jets would be the fastest-growing category of aircraft sales for the foreseeable future.2
 
Among the people originally featured in Free Flight, Bruce Holmes of NASA appears as that paradoxical figure, the visionary bureaucrat. He played that role in a new way after the terrorist attacks. When entrepreneurs thought there were expanded market possibilities for alternatives to airlines, a talk with Bruce Holmes was a routine first stop for understanding the small-plane system. Holmes told me, in the spring of 2002, that six different companies had approached him for briefings about NASA's Small Aircraft Transportation System. "Viable business concepts are emerging to fill the void being created by the exodus from airline travel," he wrote in an e-mail message. A year earlier, he said, "none of that entrepreneurial energy was being channeled the way it is now."
Holmes didn't add something I knew independently: several of these companies had hoped to recruit him as an employee, with the prospect of stock options and potential wealth. I once asked him why he decided, in his fifties, to remain a civil servant rather than joining the industry his ideas were helping foster. He said that he had thought long and hard about how he might have the greatest influence in his life, and had concluded that being a coordinator, evangelist, and visionary was the way. He received steadily rising recognition for his role as impresario across many companies and several governmental agencies. In 2002 he was named Engineer of the Year by the Virginia Peninsula Engineering Council, an honor that touched him because, with its national labs and military sites, the Hampton Roads area has as high a density of engineers per square foot as any place on earth.
From the bully pulpit of his public position, Holmes also stressed that the air-taxi model would be attractive for reasons beyond mere convenience. It could also improve, rather than compromise, security against terrorism.
His argument came back to the central reason that the Internet had proven so robust, in the face of technical breakdowns and hacking attacks. A "distributed" system, with no main headquarters (or target zone), can respond to stress more resiliently than a highly centralized system can. This principle had been clear in air travel before September 11. One reason airline travel bogged down so often was that a disruption in any part of the system—storms in Denver, a runway closed in OʹHare—soon rippled through to inconvenience everyone else. Because Southwest Airlines operated a series of point-to-point flights, rather than a centralized hub-and-spoke network, it suffered many fewer of these ripple effects. An air-taxi system would be more decentralized still.
"It is worth re-emphasizing that such a distributed, on-demand system is also vastly preferable in terms of resilience and robustness in the face of disruptions of the worst kind—terrorism," Holmes wrote me after the attacks. He made his point in characteristically dense language but with strong underlying logic:
This is because: a) the vehicles aren't big enough to represent either a viable target or a viable threat to the ground, b) the distributed system does not have the dependencies of the centralized system, making multiple paths from origin to destination possible and practical much like in the internet. In system dynamics, we learn that scheduled, centralized systems have second-order responses to disruption (i.e., big waves in response to stimuli); we also learn that on-demand, distributed systems do not exhibit this behavior—they are much more linear in their behavior (i.e., no big waves, predictable responses). I suggest that travelers and shippers would much more prefer the latter.
That is: an air transportation system relying on a larger number of smaller planes is less vulnerable to cataclysmic disruption of any sort, be it from weather, mechanical problems, or planned sabotage. Passengers and pilots are more likely to know who they're flying with. The consequences if things go wrong are more easily contained. Security at small airports would no doubt need to tighten from its levels before the terrorist attacks. But the inherent advantages of an "on-demand, distributed system" mean it could operate safely with a lighter overlay of screening, policing, and surveillance.
The environment for Holmes, and for the small-aircraft vision within NASA, changed with Daniel Goldin's departure as administrator late in 2001, after nearly a decade in office. Goldin had been an enthusiastic exponent of Holmes's programs and had used several of his major speeches to explain the underlying rationale for the Small Aircraft Transportation System, or SATS. His successor, a former secretary of the navy named Sean O'Keefe, said nothing about the program in his early speeches. But during his first major appearance before the congressional committee that controls NASA funding, O'Keefe said he was "fully supportive" of SATS.3
Another influential federal body, the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry, issued an "interim report" early in 2002 urging that the country make better use of its air space and small airports—and that it invest in the new air traffic control system that would be necessary to handle much larger numbers of flights. A modernized and greatly expanded system should be a "top priority," it said, because the Federal Aviation Administration was being too limited and shortsighted in its plans to expand capacity.4
Vern Raburn, of Eclipse Aviation, also argued that the new predicament of the airlines would hasten the arrival of air taxis. "A service level that was already dismal has become even more so," he told me after the airlines settled into their post-attack security system. "Prior to 911, an airline trip was an effort. Now it is an endurance test. The difficulty of getting there, at a convenient schedule, and the amount of time it now takes, means more and more people are looking for options."
In the months after the terrorist attacks, Eclipse hit one performance target after another. The "friction stir welding" gamble, described in the book, paid off, allowing the company to use a modern and efficient production technique. In September 2001 Eclipse received $62 million in backing, and the following February it got $38 million more, for a total of $220 million in capital for its new business jet.
The most dramatic development was an order for 1,000 new Eclipse jets, with a total value of more than $1 billion, which was announced just after the September 11 attacks. The order, from the Nimbus Group, a startup firm based in Florida that planned to form a national air-taxi network, depended on that company's survival and success, which by mid-2002 looked highly questionable. But if Nimbus does not survive, some other company probably will. In 2001 I heard from nearly a dozen entrepreneurial groups or venture-capital firms doing market studies of small-jet air-taxi systems. In an appearance before the U.S. Aerospace Commission, Raburn said that if the SATS/air-taxi model fully succeeded, it would create a market for some 50,000 small jets—enough to keep his company and many others in business.

Genre:

On Sale
Nov 5, 2008
Page Count
272 pages
Publisher
PublicAffairs
ISBN-13
9780786741755

James Fallows

About the Author

James Fallows is National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and has worked for the magazine for more than twenty years. His previous books include Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy, Looking at the Sun, More Like Us, and National Defense. Fallows has been a regular commentator on NPR. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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