The Wonder of Flight
Despite the frustrations of cancelations and delays, it's worth remembering mass commercial air travel is quite an achievement
As I write this, I’m 30,000 feet above the ground. It’s a remarkable thing: To fly in a 242-foot, silver, jet-powered and winged tube with hundreds of people, traveling thousands of miles from one end of the country to the other, in little more than four hours.
In recent weeks, the reports of tens of thousands of flight cancelations and delays have made travelers cranky about the struggles of commercial travel. That’s understandable, what with an average 2.9 million passengers flying in the US every day, counting on these metal birds and an industry system to take them to meetings, vacations and home, for the holidays and so many other purposes. Shareholders of Southwest filed a lawsuit on Thursday blaming the airline for fraudulently concealing problems that led to more than 15,000 cancelations during the last month. And last Wednesday, a damaged database file at the Federal Aviation Administration reportedly caused thousands of cancelations and delays across a variety of airlines.
But I find myself dwelling on the other side of this story—how it’s a miracle that we humans, defined by gravity, have found and developed a way to make the surface of our vast earth remarkably smaller. What was once only possible for daredevils and knowledge-seekers willing to risk their lives—and later, only business people and the wealthy—has become a way of life for most of us. This democratization has profoundly changed our capacity to connect, learn and experience pleasure.
While the impact of mass air travel on climate change and rising CO2 levels is increasingly requiring a rethink—to expand train travel and other forms, for example, that would reduce carbon emissions and the danger to our planet —let’s take a moment to recall how we got here.
On December 17, 1903, in Kill Devil Hills near Kitty Hawk, NC, Orville Wright lay flat on his belly over a gasoline engine in a biplane operated with a rudder that he and his brother Wilbur designed in their garage. That plane taxied, lifted off the ground and flew for 12 seconds and 120 feet. They flew their invention three more times, with the longest flight lasting 59 seconds and 852 feet. This was just the start of their work to build flying machines that could travel great distances.
By 1919, a wealthy French-born American, Raymond Orteig offered a $25,000 prize to “the first aviator of any Allied country crossing the Atlantic in one flight” between New York and Paris. Among the first to try (and fail) were two British Royal Air Force fliers—Capt. John Alcock and Lt. Arthur “Ted” Brown—operating an open cockpit, dual engine WWI bomber with a 68-foot wingspan and made of wood and fabric. By 1927, after six known aviators had died pursuing the Orteig Prize, Charles Lindbergh was able to benefit from significant advances in technology and engines, instrumentation and navigation ability.
With funding from St. Louis businessman and other aviation backers to purchase a closed cockpit metal plane that could carry 450 gallons of gas, Lindbergh left New York’s Roosevelt Field on May 20 at 7:51 a.m. on a sleepless flight to Paris that took 33 hours and 30 minutes. By the nighttime arrival after The Spirit of St. Louis’ historic transatlantic journey at Le Bourget Aerodrome, more than 150,000 people were waiting to witness and celebrate Lindbergh’s accomplishment. Soon they were carrying the exhausted pilot on their shoulders.
This globally hailed success inspired commercial air travel, although the early years required flying propeller planes at low altitudes in cold, non-pressurized cabins, often with significant turbulence and at great expense. In the 1930s, a cross-country round trip airfare was $260, about half the price of a new car. Still, from 6,000 passengers in 1929, commercial flying grew to more than 450,000 in 1934 and 1.2 million in 1938.
But it was the arrival of the jet engine and Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 airlines that ushered in a new era. The number of passengers quadrupled between 1955 and 1972; by the 1970s, nearly half of Americans had experienced air travel, even though repeat business travelers still dominated the skies.
From the glamorous age of the ‘70s Jet Set, with free-flowing liquor, fine meals and fashionably dressed fellow travelers, to the deregulated 1980s when an air ticket dropped below the price of a bus ride, to the present day when commercial travel is experienced by billions of passengers every year around the world, it remains an extraordinary human achievement—even if the seats are cramped, the food is poor or non-existent, and you’re lucky if the sweaty guy in the seat next to you is wearing long pants. Think about the sheer scale: Over 13 million flights annually in the US alone and 4.7 billion passengers globally in pre-COVID 2020 (and back up to 3.7 billion in 2022).
None of this is meant to minimize the genuine need for airline industry reform, including addressing inadequate computer systems by the airlines and air traffic controllers often operating decades-old technology. The latter upgrading will require billions in new federal investment, so it likely will take a new House majority to even imagine the necessary changes. But the next time I’m stuck with an extended delay or even a canceled flight, I hope I’ll pause from my griping and frustration to appreciate that this problem is even possible.
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