Saturday, April 15, 2017

Dreaming about more civilized Domestic Travel

Matt Yglesias has a very good primer on why air travel is so miserable these days. The key is cost: airline travel per mile has gotten very cheap, and when faced with a choice of paying for better service, most of us opt for cheap and uncomfortable.

Take a look at this chart of airline cost/mile since 1979:

Today we pay less than half what we paid in 1979. And we get less: no meals, narrower seats, less seat angle, less reclining, less leg-room, oversold flights, less overhead storage.

We are more stressed than we were in 1978: we are exposed to jostling, coughing, and germs being spread in tighter and tighter spaces. Is this any way to live?

There are only two ways of improving the situation: paying more, or finding a source to subsidize air-travel.

Even many of us who could afford to pay more, opt for price over quality. We do it despite ourselves. I sometimes purchase Economy Plus on my United flights to Vancouver, but usually I don't. I can stand the cramped seating for the two and one half hour flight up the coast, even as I grit my teeth. It's like a crowded Muni ride to downtown. Unpleasant, but it moves a lot of people for cheap.

The airline deregulation act of 1978 (signed by President Carter) freed carriers to choose which markets to serve and what to charge on routes. It also permitted new carriers to enter the market more freely. The result has been the race to the bottom--in terms of service and price--reflected in the graph above. We've put up with it because there are more flights, travel is safe, . . . and it's cheap.

The government (USDOT) currently subsidizes approximately 175 routes to underserved locations (to the tune of $200/ticket), that would otherwise be unprofitable and underserved by the airline industry.

Cheap flying has opened airline travel to the masses. To be crudely classist and rude, it has made our airlines to resemble third world chicken buses.  That's a good thing because the masses have travel needs and they should be able to vacation and visit family across the country. In this modern, interconnected world, we need inexpensive ways to move people long distances efficiently.

But it raises the question whether airplane travel is the best way to do this? I took the train from San Francisco to Glenwood Springs this winter.  The price for a sleeper room was the same as flying, but the trip was a much more civilized way to travel. There was lots of leg-room, you make real connection and friendship with fellow passengers, there's decent food, and a sleeper car.  It was not very efficient.  The nominally 25 hour trip took more than 30 hours each way. If you want to take four days off work to go skiing in Aspen, it won't be how you travel. But if we decided to invest in connecting our cities with modern, high-speed train service, it would be a different story.  Imagine . . .

Might we not better connect those marginal, out of the way places that are currently subsidized by "Essential Air Services Program," by connecting them to a modern high-speed rail system that truly connects the country. Trump has talked about taking on an infrastructure program to stamp his presidency. Why not a new high speed rail network on the scale of what we did with interstate highways in the 50's and 60's?

Imagine this:

Imagine regular train service connecting Louisville Kentucky and New York in seven hours--in comfort. No taking off your shoes, no getting dragged down the aisle by police goons because seats are oversold? Good food, service with a smile, time to interact, and space to work.

It would require prioritizing a large portion of government expenditures for such a project. Is it beyond us?  Ask John Culbertson (R-Texas), he wants to put people back on the moon and explore Jupiter's moon Europa. If we can dream about space missions to Europa, if we can afford to spend $4-6 trillion on Mideast adventures (The Hill reports a study on the cumulative cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), why can't we dream about a more civilized way to move lots of people around the country?

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles.

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