Destroy Mass Transportation

For many years mass transportation has been the area of the average westerner's life where the government intrudes most. Things were pretty great for a while after airline deregulation, with the ability to buy tickets at the last minute and transfer tickets to anyone, but that didn't last long. First came the (possibly illegal) order from the FAA that nobody could even point at in writing that told the airlines they needed to require government ID. At best, someone without ID could be a "selectee" and receive special attention, but few people have succeeded in doing this. John Gilmore attempted to push the point, but he no longer flies at all, a rather telling fact.

Strip searches of people who have received thyroid treatments, X-ray backscatter machines that show the person naked on a screen (which, BTW, I actually wouldn't mind so much in the hands of an airline whose reputation was on the line, but in the hands of TSA employees is guaranteed to get abused), taking off your shoes, and now no gels or liquids. It doesn't seem likely at this point that government intrusion in mass transportation is going to decrease any time soon, and in fact all evidence indicates that it will only get worse.

Think you can escape by taking the train? Tell that to people who have bought tickets with cash at the last minute and were unpleasantly surprised upon reaching their destination with being questioned by FBI agents (I'm too lazy to find links to this - if somone knows of a specific incident please post it in the comments). I haven't heard of the same thing happening with long distance bus rides, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Why is it that the only way to get around economically by air is via huge airliners anyway? There is only one reason: regulation. The FAA started out with the mandate to make air travel safer so that more people would be willing to fly. Now that the aviation industry has taken off, the FAA no longer feels the need to promote it, so their mandate has mutated into "safety at all costs." The only way an FAA bureaucrat can lose his or her job is if there's a plane crash that should have been avoided. (Note that things are different in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is much more like the early FAA due to the fact that they need to have an industry to regulate in order to keep their jobs.) This is also reflected in the government-run air traffic control system: it couldn't handle more aircraft even if aviation had a renaissance.

The FAA's "safety at all costs" mandate has basically kept airplane technology in the 70s. Any system that is to be permanently installed in the plane must be certified, an act that multiplies its price by 10, and installed by a certified aircraft mechanic. Instead of simply requiring financial responsibility in order to take off, you must basically prove that you won't crash, which basically means new technologies take a very long time to get off the ground. If cars worked that way, everybody but the richest would be stuck taking buses and trains today. Frustration with flying around in slightly-updated 1950s technology (Cessna 172s) is one of the reasons I gave up on getting my pilot's license; even brand new Cessna 172Rs remind one of riding around in an old Greyhound bus.

NASA is working on a system called SATS which could potentially make it much easier for a flying taxi service to get off the ground. However, it's not clear if it will be deployed any time soon, and even if it were the cost of airframe certification would still be a major barrier; there is very little competition in the certified airframe market.

In my opinion, two reforms are necessary to make it easier to go long distances quickly without having to resort to mass transportation: private ATC funded by subscriptions or landing fees and the replacement of airframe certification (i.e. the "prove you won't crash" mentality) with financial responsibility requirements. Insurance companies, which already have plenty of experience with aviation, could simply require that pilots (or aircraft) subscribe to an ATC provider or other form of anti-collision system. It's not even clear that a market would produce anything like the ATC of today; aircraft could potentially handle their own collision avoidance by direct negotiation with other aircraft and onboard radar (something that isn't widely used primarily because of the expense of certification). Ground-based radar systems and controllers might primarily serve as backup.

It's very likely that after a short period of time any noise problems would be licked; it's unlikely there would be a sudden proliferation of old, noisy designs. Instead, many new designs that stayed on the drawing board under the old regulatory regime would probably be introduced to the market right away. The skies might be dark with aircraft, but the noise level shouldn't be a problem, given that there are designs in the prototype phase where the engines are so quiet that airframe noise is suddenly significant in comparison. It's also likely that technologies to reduce pollution and contrail appearance and longevity will crawl out of the woodwork to alleviate complaints from astronomers and environmentalists.

Meanwhile, I'll be working on getting rich enough to afford a private jet like Al Gore.

Note: the title is an obscure reference to the KOMPRESSOR song "Destroy Mass Media."

Share this