Tag Archives: airlines

HSR and Air Travel – partners and competitors

FRA long distance rail station – Wikimedia Commons image

Alon Levy wrote about the USDOT’s airfare database and the implications for potential high speed rail markets. Alon’s broad conclusions are that the regional markets suitable for HSR haven’t changed all that much in the last decade – the NEC is the most promising corridor, California is second, and others also make sense – but short of a true national network.

His post sparked me to ask – what are the best practices for integrating HSR with airports? High Speed Rail networks have different characteristics from airline networks. Some elements of the services are competitive, while others are complementary. A big part of the political sell for HSR in California was the counterfactual of required airport investment to facilitate travel in the state – but what’s the real impact on airports and airline service?

HSR Corridors vs Airline Hub Networks

Even modest rail systems can effectively compete against air travel in given corridors. Amtrak often brags about the barely-high-speed Acela earning an 80% share of the air/rail market (a notably smaller portion of the overall travel market) between NYC and DC. American and Delta still offer their Shuttle flights between DCA and LGA, but they don’t dominate they way they used to.

Amtrak has the advantage along a linear corridor, where one train making multiple stops serves multiple markets – If United Airlines wanted to match service along the NEC, they’d need a lot of feeder flights from DCA, BWI, and PHL into EWR – and they’d have to run them far more frequently to offer as many departure times.

Airline hubs are a different beast – the spokes all feed traffic into the hub. They’re not flying a route solely for the local traffic, they’re also feeding traffic into their hub to connect to other routes.

International Comparisons

Despite the track record for HSR in other countries, there are surprisingly few examples of excellent air-rail integration. Only a handful of big airports have quality connections to HSR networks: Frankfurt, Paris-CDG, and Amsterdam are most prominent. I found this paper exploring the history of both FRA and CDG:

In Frankfurt, the addition of HSR service allowed Lufthansa to decrease domestic flights and increase international flights without losing domestic passenger feed:

With the opening of the Frankfurt–Cologne and Frankfurt–Stuttgart HSR lines, Frankfurt Airport increased its catchment area by 10 million people who suddenly lived within 2 h of the airport…

Whereas Frankfurt Airport may be limited in terms of capacity, it has managed to support an increase in international passenger traffic and to maintain dominance in Germany as the major long-haul international airport serving the country.

Conversely, at CDG, Air France retained a small number of domestic flights to feed their long-haul flights, despite the TGV’s dominance in markets to/from Paris:

The other two routes, Paris–Lyon and Paris–Montpellier, experienced a relatively flat trend in passenger traffic, although there are competitive HSR alternatives that link these cities directly to CDG. In particular, the capacity on these routes has remained relatively stable, supporting research claims that airlines are likely to maintain a certain number of flights at their hub airports to maintain their network, even with the presence of fast and reliable HSR–air connectivity (7).

The paper’s conclusions about the characteristics of a successful HSR/airport integration:

Infrastructure. To provide feeder or transfer service between HSR and air transportation, the rail station should be located at the airport. If the HSR connection at the airport is constructed as a detour from the primary network patterns on the rail system, it is unlikely that the airport will be served with enough frequency.

Schedule and frequency. Rail operators and airlines often have the same goal of optimizing their networks, but they are separate networks. Coordinating timetables to ensure that rail service meets banks of connecting flights is an important consideration.

Market characteristics of the airport. In the two successful cases in this study, the primary airports with HSR links were the dominant international hubs of each country. For both CDG and Frankfurt International Airport, domestic traffic declined and international passenger traffic increased. Two key factors may have influenced this growth: partial alleviation of congestion at the airport by decreasing domestic flights and success of the HSR lines as feeder service for international flights.

In other words: lots of similar patterns to good transit planning on the rail side of the equation: Be on the way; frequency is freedom, etc. The key difference is about integration: is HSR service best thought of as a means of ground transportation – just extending an airport’s catchment area? Or is it best considered like a true connecting flight – integrated into an airline’s ticketing, loyalty programs, baggage handling, etc.

For airports and airlines, things are a bit more complicated. Both CDG and FRA are huge hubs, and the primary international connecting hubs for their respective countries.

In the US, the airport/airline situation is quite different. As a much larger country, no airline operates a single hub that dominates international traffic the way that CDG and FRA do in France and Germany. Far more medium-distance air travel is domestic travel; US visa rules and unfavorable geography make international-to-international connections less common – meaning domestic feed at big connecting hubs is even more important.

Future US HSR/Airport Links

Alon’s conclusions:

In the Midwest, the core lines remain strong, but more peripheral Midwestern lines, say a bypass around Chicago for cross-regional traffic or improved rail service due west toward Iowa, are probably no longer worth it. The Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor may not be worth it to build as full HSR – instead it may be downgraded to an electrified passenger-primary corridor (as I understand it it already has very little freight).

Now, Alon was using this air travel data as a proxy for overall travel demand. Assuming the demand is still there (even if the recent growth has been mdoest) Chicago strikes me as a market with great potential as an air/rail hub – a huge hub airport, located near existing candidate HSR lines, and wouldn’t require a large detour to serve. The full Midwest HSR network centered on Chicago could extend ORD’s catchment area (connecting MSP, MSN, MKE, DTW, STL, CLE, and others) and potentially free up airport capacity for longer-haul, higher-value flying.

SFO is another airport that stands to benefit from HSR. SFO’s airfield is constrained and unable to expand; United’s trans-pacific hub depends on feeder flights often limited by poor visibility; the airport’s location is immediately adjacent to the planned HSR service.

Better planning for CAHSR would add even more value to the connection at SFO – particularly had planners used Altamont Pass, the airport would have a faster connection to Sacramento, increasing SFO’s catchment area.

The Northeast Corridor has lots of potential air-rail connections. The rail line itself passes plausibly close to lots of major airports: DCA, BWI, PHL, and EWR. DCA lacks international flights and is can’t grow; BWI’s hub carrier is almost entirely domestic and doesn’t have many international flights to feed.

Both PHL and EWR are interesting candidates for American and United, respectively. Newark in particular meets all of the criteria for success described in the paper. United already uses EWR’s proximity to code-share with Amtrak in lieu of flying short connecting flights from Philadelphia (though the business practices of Amtrak and United are quite different and can make for a challenging passenger experience) and United recently announced cutbacks to flights within the NEC to EWR – dropping the 4x daily BWI-EWR service due to airport constraints.

Philadelphia would require an airport station along the NEC that doesn’t currently exist. The airport’s proximity to New York and the larger travel market there means a bit of a precarious existence, but PHL’s hub carrier (American) has recently been shifting connecting traffic to PHL and away from their greater New York operations, which are split across LGA and JFK and increasingly focused on serving local traffic.

The potential is there for these airports – the big questions will be a) if HSR service ever exists (or improves), and b) what form the airline/railroad partnership takes – as a true connection, or as extended ground transportation?

Aerostates, Geopolitics and the interpretation of regulations

Last Sunday’s Washington Post featured an article covering the ongoing saga between the Big Three US-based network airlines (American, Delta, and United) and the Middle East Three (Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar) airlines over the rules for air travel and the role for government in regulating it, as well as funding it. The intersection of air travel, the shape of the global economy, and the challenge of defining the role of governments in a globalized economy.

Mark Gerchick summarizes the stakes:

This fight is not just about legacy companies trying to hold market share against entrepreneurial upstarts — a dynamic in aviation since the likes of People Express fought to wrest a slice of transatlantic travel from British Airways three decades ago. Today’s Persian Gulf challenge is more fundamental, a new business model that relies on three tectonic shifts in global aviation: a gulf-ward lurch in the world economy’s center of gravity; a dramatic loosening of trade restrictions on where, when and how the world’s airlines can fly; and the emergence of the “aerostate,” where world-class aviation is a critical economic engine deeply integrated with the state itself.

Global Governance and Aerostates:

Connectivity to the rest of the global economy is incredibly valuable; longer-range aircraft offer global reach.

While the shift of the global economic center of gravity is notable, the most interesting developments in this row concern geopolitics and global governance. Since last writing about this a year ago, there hasn’t been much regulatory action. The stakes are largely the same as laid out a year ago.

However, a few things have changed. While the US DOT hasn’t taken any action, both Delta and United cancelled their Dubai services. The service pattern is now entirely asymmetric – the ME3 serve thirteen destinations in the US, while American carriers serve none in Qatar or the UAE.

Dubai emerged as the archtype of the aerostate – where the lines between the airline business and government policy have blurred, even disappeared.

Ironically, the stated reason for United dropping their service between Washington Dulles and Dubai was the loss of the contract to carry US government employees and contractors, as required by the Fly America act. The winning bidder for the US government contract? Emirates, thanks to a JetBlue codeshare ensuring Fly America compliance.

Impacts of Regulatory Interpretation:

This case is an interesting example of the wide latitude for interpretation of broadly similar legislation. The intent of Fly America (and other rules like Buy America) is to keep US government spending with US-based businesses.

That winning contract will save those government employees a lot of money. The GSA’s interpretation of the Fly America rules is good for the government as a consumer – but at the cost of taking business away from a US-based airline in favor of a foreign one with an almost entirely domestic codeshare partner. In FY15, United Airlines’ contract with the GSA for IAD-DXB cost $979 per coach seat, and $7,114 per business class seat. Emirates/JetBlue won the FY16 contract with prices of $699 and $6,600, respectively. That’s a 28% savings for the government on the coach ticket.

Similar rules such as Buy America for transit projects include interpretation focused on ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent with US businesses. Unlike the Dulles-Dubai contract, where an American company offered the same product, many key transit projects rely on rolling stock that isn’t manufactured in the United States. Compliance therefore requires ‘final assembly’ at US factories, despite the bulk of the manufacturing taking place overseas.

This additional expense certainly creates some additional business, but does so at great expense – both by increasing the cost of rolling stock, but also by reducing the number of firms able to successfully win the contract and comply with the rules. It also makes the purchase of ‘off-the-shelf’ trainsets from foreign manufacturers effectively impossible. It also makes each railcar purchase a one-off design, complete with all of the associated development costs to de-bug and test a new design.

It’s worth considering how such similar laws can result in such divergent outcomes.

Parallels between Zoning and Airline Deregulation

Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.

Pacific Southwest Airlines post-deregulation ad (1985), showing their expansion beyond California. Image from Airbus777 on flickr.

Last week, Ilya Somin published a piece in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog entitled “the emerging cross-ideological consensus on zoning.” The lede:

In recent years, and especially over the last few months, economists and other public policy experts across the political spectrum have come to realize that zoning rules are a major obstacle to affordable housing and economic opportunity for the poor and lower middle class. By artificially restricting new construction, zoning and other similar land-use restrictions greatly increase the price of housing, and prevents the market from adjusting to increasing demand. This emerging consensus is a good sign, though it may be difficult to translate it into effective policy initiatives.

The issue isn’t zoning per se, but zoning (in practice) as a constraint against matching housing supply with demand. Somin notes that arguments about negative impacts from overly strict zoning come from across the political spectrum, ranging from the kinds of libertarian, free-market scholars you might expect, to Paul Krugman (noted previously here), writing “this is an issue on which you don’t have to be a conservative to believe that we have too much regulation.”

Somin draws the parallel to a past cross-ideological consensus in favor of deregulation: Airlines.

Airline deregulation is a bit of a misnomer. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 only removed government regulation of the airline business model; air travel is still highly regulated, particularly for safety purposes.  Here, the parallel with zoning is useful: zoning is just one set of regulations that govern development in cities. Building codes still apply; just as airlines are still subject to safety regulations.

Before deregulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) controlled all of the key elements of the airline business: what routes could be flown (and by which airlines), the schedules of those services, and the fares airlines could charge. The market for air travel was completely controlled by the regulators.

Airlines couldn’t compete based on price, nor could they easily add new routes or serve new markets. With this tremendous constraint on capacity, they had no choice but to compete by offering luxurious service. Perhaps this sounds familiar to anyone who’s recently apartment-shopped in a tight housing market.

However, despite the conceptual similarities, there is one key difference: airline regulation was centralized in the federal government. Reforming things was relatively simple. Zoning is ubiquitous in American cities, but control over zoning is decentralized. There’s no national zoning office, no obvious equivalent of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

Because the Federal government can only regulate interstate commerce, the controls of the CAB did not apply within states. In big states that could support commercial air traffic wholly within their boundaries, there was already a preview of deregulation: Pacific Southwest Airlines (within California) and Southwest (within Texas). However, this intra-state experimentation in airline business models didn’t have the large impact on the industry until taken to scale nationwide. Likewise, because of the regional nature of housing markets, there’s not sure to be a benefit to a single city in a region to be the first mover on looser zoning.

Because of the decentralized nature of legal control over zoning, even an emerging consensus among legislators and policy-makers would have to be much deeper than the kind of consensus that deregulated the airlines. And even with a broad and deep consensus, the sheer number of jurisdictions that would need to take action is enormous.

For that reason, it’s hard to imagine action to change zoning on a scale akin to airline deregulation without some kind of intervention from the courts. Charlie Gardner covers the history of the jurisprudence of single-family-only zones and notes how long it’s been since these issues have been before the court – and how some of these issues have never been directly addressed:

Ninety years after the Euclid decision, land use debates in the United States continue to be distorted by this same dichotomy between “single-family zoning” and “multifamily” areas. Rather than talking about housing in terms of units/acre, or total floor area, or some other similar metric, we tend to use purported building types — whether single-family, duplex, triplex, ADU or other such classification. Yet these classifications are in a sense illusory. Whether a builder puts up three detached homes on a lot, three stacked units in a triplex, or three side-by-side units in rowhouse form really shouldn’t matter a great deal to the regulator.

The court’s confusion on this point may have stemmed in part from the lack of a concrete controversy. The respondent, Ambler Realty, was seeking to use its property for industrial purposes, and had no intention of constructing any residential buildings, much less apartments. The dispute was an abstract one which only pertained to the value of the land. Had the court been confronted with a scenario in which an individual builder sought to construct a two-unit building conforming to height and bulk regulations within a single-family zone, it could not have evaded the question so easily.

Charlie also cites Sonia Hirt’s excellent book Zoned in the USA, which documents America’s unique and ubiquitous single-family only zoning and how much of an outlier these regulations are in the world. In other words, outside of the consensus.

Would a challenge in the courts bring the US in alignment with the kinds of regulations used elsewhere in the world? Would posing the question to the courts embrace decades of regulatory momentum – or look to academics and policymakers for a new emerging consensus?

Dispatch from the battle lines over Globalization: US Airlines take on the Middle East Carriers

Dubai International Airport. CC image from Raihan S.R. Bakhsh

Dubai International Airport. CC image from Raihan S.R. Bakhsh

There’s a fight brewing amongst big international airlines. The old guys are complaining that the new kids aren’t playing by the same rules; the new kids argue that the old guys need to step up their game. The dispute represents a fascinating window into a very public battle over globalization. What are the rules, and who gets to make them?

A coalition of the three major American airlines (American/US Airways, United, and Delta) combined with many of the unions that represent their employees are putting on a full-court press (complete with ads in DC’s Metro), arguing that the Big Three carriers in the Middle East (Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad – often abbreviated as the ME3) are undermining the principles of free and fair competition with subsidies that distort the market. The Gulf air carriers are pushing back against the accusations, arguing they provide a superior product at a lower cost. Vox has a brief article that summarizes the arguments for both sides.

The US carriers outline billions in subsidies to these carriers. They include everything from subsidized development of the region’s massive airports to interest-free loans and infusions of capital from the ruling families – who also own the airlines themselves.  The alleged subsidies support Qatar and Etihad to a greater degree than Emirates (the paper alleges that Qatar and Etihad would not be viable commercial businesses without their subsidies; not so for Emirates). You can find the white paper and presentation here.


Summary of the subsidies alleged by the US carriers. Image from the Americans for Fair Skies presentation.

Central to the debate are the United States’ Open Skies treaties with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Open Skies treaties deregulate the routes and destinations for international air travel between the two signatories. The US State Department prioritized signing Open Skies agreements since signing the first such agreement between the US and the Netherlands in 1992 (see the full list of agreements here, as well as the text of a sample agreement).

There is an inherent asymmetry in any Open Skies agreement between the United States and Qatar or the UAE; due to the small size of those countries, the agreements only add two or three destinations worth serving for US airlines (indeed, there are only two scheduled flights to Qatar or the UAE from US-based carriers – Delta flies ATL-DXB and United flies IAD-DXB). Gulf airlines, however, earn rights to fly to a wide array of American cities.

Part of the success of the Gulf carriers is due to the geographic advantage of the Middle East hubs. Dubai has long served as a stopover point for refueling along the Kangaroo Route. Now, carriers like Emirates use Dubai as centrally located hub to efficiently connect air traffic between Europe, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.

However, there’s more to the rise of the Gulf carriers than advantageous geography. For these Gulf states (often, effectively, city-states), focusing on aviation is a deliberate economic development strategy. When you’re talking about state-owned businesses, how do you differentiate between the viability of the various airlines as businesses from the state’s explicit policy of aviation-focused economic development? In their white paper, the US carriers make the case that Open Skies agreements assumed that an open market would provide a superior business model to state-owned airlines (and there is a long history around the world of poorly run state-owned airlines) and that competition would bring this truth to light. However, with the rise of State Capitalism, the US carriers argue, it’s not clear that assumption can be trusted.

It’s the next step in the idea of developing around the aerotropolis. Instead of building your economy around an airport, why not build it around an airline? Dubai’s success in developing their middle-eastern metropolis around a global aviation hub inspired Qatar and Abu Dhabi to do the same – a strategy that not only required the airport, but the airline to feed it.

The Gulf carriers aren’t just looking to their Middle East hub airports, either. Emirates took advantage of struggling Alitalia to earn a fifth-freedom route from Milan to JFK. Emirates makes no secret of their ambitions to offer service around the globe via some key fifth-freedom routes:

President Tim Clark has revealed the first details of what looks like the next step in Emirates’ march to become a truly global powerhouse. On the sidelines of last week’s International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting in Cape Town, the airline outlined plans to set up a major transpacific operation. Its aircraft would be flying through intermediate points in Asia to destinations in North America. What is making the threat even more serious for Asian and U.S. airlines is that Emirates has another 67 Airbus A380s on firm order, which—like its large incoming fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs—has the range capability to fly from many points in Asia to cities far beyond the U.S. West Coast.

Emirates can choose from several geographic points that offer the necessary aeropolitical framework. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has an open skies agreement with the U.S. “It allows us to take passengers on a fifth-freedom basis from the West Coast and central points in the U.S. to points in Asia,” Clark says. In Asia, there are open skies agreements with Thailand and Singapore. Emirates also has similar rights for some destinations in Japan.

Bold added. This is the root of the entire debate: a battle over the details of a global aeropolitical framework. A battle over the rules.

When it comes to Emirates, their Dubai hub isn’t the concern from the US carriers. The real concern is these aspirations to cover the globe with fifth-freedom traffic. Delta claims that the ME3’s cheap connections in Dubai make it difficult to serve India directly from the US (and presents strong competition for the European joint venture partners if connecting to India in Europe). Flying to US cities from Europe or Asia directly (e.g. the current New York-Milan service, if expanded to other airports) threatens to undermine direct service to Europe; additional fifth-freedom routes across the Pacific could do the same. Brett Snyder notes the concern about hurting the overall network:

If the Middle East carriers skim the international markets with the most traffic, then the US carriers will have to cut back service. When international flights get cut, the whole network becomes vulnerable. The end result is probably less service for smaller and mid-tier cities. It’s just the way the network effect works.

While the American carriers are asking the US Government to revisit these agreements, the Feds must balance other US interests in the region beyond air travel. Qatar and the UAE host a number of US military facilities. The US has a large trade surplus with both nations, partly due to companies like Boeing selling lots of widebody airliners to the Gulf Carriers. American cargo airlines like FedEx take advantage of Open Skies in a similar fashion to the Gulf carriers, facilitating global cargo movement. In other words, it’s not clear the US carriers have a sympathetic ear from the Federal government.

The PR campaign from the US carriers is an attempt to change policy by influencing public opinion, but it will be an uphill climb with the general public. Counter-arguments from the Gulf carriers ask why the American carriers are afraid of competition. US airlines aren’t exactly earning lots of sympathy from the public.

The PR battle is also getting nasty: Qatar Airways’ CEO accuses Delta of flying “crap” planes without a hint of irony: it’s not hard to buy nice, new aircraft when you can fall back on massive capital infusions (as alleged in the white paper) to buy those expensive aircraft. Lufthansa’s CEO, facing a strike from his unionized pilots, joked that he should hire Qatar’s CEO as his union advisor (unions being illegal in Qatar and the UAE). And while customers might like the product and the price point offered by the Gulf carriers, it’s not clear than anyone in the US would be willing to accept the trade-offs that make that product possible.

The white paper notes that the subsidies documented meet the World Trade Organization definition. However, even though both Qatar and the UAE are part of the WTO, aviation isn’t a core part of the WTO’s agreements.

If aviation were a part of the WTO, there would be a specific process to raise and resolve disputes. In other trade areas, the WTO can authorize the use of ‘counterveiling measures’ against subsidies and dumping, such as tariffs or restrictions on trade volume. But here, there aren’t any specific rules governing aviation – hence the PR campaign.

In essence, this is a battle over the rules. If the story of the aerotropolis is the story of globalization, is this a tide that lifts all boats? Or is it a race to the bottom? Competition is good, but what if the basis for that competition is based on the rules governing labor markets in Qatar or the UAE? Will the fight over the rules of the game lead to improvements in working conditions for migrant labor in the middle east? While the US airlines are certainly acting in their own self-interest, is this battle similar to the public scrutiny over Qatar’s labor practices in advance of hosting the 2022 World Cup? Could this battle over the rules not only find room for fair competition, but also leverage an improved quality of life elsewhere in the world?

Or is all of that wishful thinking?

Perimeter rules – DCA, LGA, and the challenges of regulating both airline and passenger behavior

Recently, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey floated the idea of eliminating LaGuardia Airport’s 1,500 mile perimeter rule. Only two major airports in the United States have perimeter restrictions that ban flights beyond a certain distance: LaGuardia and Washington National.

Both National and LaGuarida airports share a common history: both pre-date the jet age. both were constructed with the assistance of the Works Progress Administration, both later proved too small for jet traffic and the boom in air travel, requiring the construction of newer, larger airports.

Today, there are also several characteristics in common: both National and LaGuardia are governed and operated as a part of an airport system (administered respectively by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, also operating Dulles International; and the Port Authority of NY and NJ, operating Newark and JFK airports), both airports are popular with business travelers, and both airports are subject to perimeter rule restrictions that limit the distance of scheduled flights.


The evolution of DCA perimeter restrictions. Rings around DCA show the 1965 650mi rule, the 1981 1,000mi rule, the 1986 1,250mi rule, and the current beyond-perimeter destinations. Image from the Great Circle Mapper – www.gcmap.com

The rule first appeared with the dawn of the jet age. National Airport had non-stop long-distance airline service via propellor-driven aircraft, prior to the rise of jets in commercial aviation. However, DCA was not equipped to deal with the different geometry required for efficient operations of jet aircraft. Dulles International Airport, purpose-built for the jet age, opened in 1962. Noise from jet aircraft was a large reason behind the perimeter rule, but part of the reasoning for the rule was to drive jet traffic to Dulles as well.

The first version of the rule, put in place in 1965, limited flights to a 650 mile radius of Washington, DC. This range just barely includes Chicago; airports that already had non-stop service into DCA (such as Minneapolis and Denver) were granted exemptions. Long-distance flights, exploiting the rapidly growing capabilities of jet aircraft, were forced to use either Dulles or neighboring BWI airport.

The perimeter expanded to 1,000 miles in 1981, allowing non-stop service to South Florida, Kansas City, Saint Louis, and others. In 1986, the perimeter expanded again, to 1,250 miles, far enough to allow non-stop flights from Dallas and Houston.

In 1999, Senator John McCain of Arizona campaigned to remove the perimeter rule entirely. As a compromise, Senator McCain’s hometown airline, America West (later merged with US Air, and now American Airlines) was granted new beyond-perimeter exemptions to serve Phoenix and Las Vegas.

In 2012, the FAA granted several new beyond-perimeter exemptions for new flights to Portland, San Juan, and Austin. The FAA was directed to allow these exemptions by Congress as a part of the FAA’s reauthorization.

Each successive modification of the perimeter rule involved direction action from Congress. As a quirk of DC’s status as a federal enclave, both DCA and IAD (despite both being located outside of the District of Columbia) were built and operated by the Federal government, acting in its capacity as the local government for the National Capital. Both airports were the only airports directly operated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Since then, several conditions changed. In 1973, Congress granted limited home rule to the District of Columbia, thereby differentiating local government services from those provided by the Federal government. In 1987, Congress created (in conjunction with DC and Virginia) the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to operate both National and Dulles. The federal government retains ownership of both airports.

However, despite the move for increased local control for the region’s airports, much of the regulation surrounding them is still codified in federal laws and regulations.

1500 mile perimeter around LGA, with one beyond-perimeter exception for Denver. Image from the Great Circle Mapper - www.gcmap.com

1500 mile perimeter around LGA, with one beyond-perimeter exception for Denver. Image from the Great Circle Mapper – www.gcmap.com

Unlike National, LaGuardia’s perimeter rule is entirely self-imposed. The Port Authority imposed LaGuardia’s 1500-mile perimeter rule (with an exception for beyond-perimeter flights to Denver) in 1984 as a means to manage congestion at the airport and force some traffic to either EWR or JFK.

When looking into additional perimeter exemptions for DCA, the Government Accountability Office argued that the potential loss of flights from Dulles and BWI wouldn’t be catastrophic, and additional competition at the most central airport (in this case, DCA) would be good for consumers.

However, both MWAA and the Port Authority are tasked with managing an airport system, not just maximizing value at one particular airport. Data from MWAA shows a strong correlation between additional capacity for beyond-perimeter flights at DCA with reduced capacity for those same destinations at Dulles.


Dulles is now caught in a vicious cycle. To deal with growth in the mid-2000s, Dulles began a series of massive capital improvements to increase the airport’s capacity and address some of the inherent flaws in the airport’s design (e.g. replacing the plane-mate ‘moon buggies’ with the Aerotrain APM). Unfortunately, since MWAA took on these costs domestic passenger numbers are down, thanks to the collapse of Independence Air, the Great Recession, and the merger of United and Continental (making Dulles is no longer United’s primary east coast hub). All of these factors are driving up the cost per passenger for each remaining enplanement at Dulles. Add in the increase competition from new slots at DCA, and Dulles is struggling.

In response, MWAA is not only dealing with falling traffic at Dulles, but with DCA’s growing pains. The Authority’s new use and lease agreement with the various airlines that use the airports includes a substantial capital program over the next 10 years at DCA to accommodate additional passengers. Part of the Authority’s response is to argue vociferously against any additional exemptions to the DCA perimeter rule; however, they are at the mercy of Congress.

The Port Authority might not need to protect JFK to the same extent that MWAA would like to protect their investments in Dulles, but MWAA’s current experience should provide a cautionary tale. Removal of the perimeter restrictions at LGA would certainly produce winners and losers among both airline tenants at each airport and for the passengers that use them; it’s certainly unlikely to decrease passenger loads at LGA. In fact, American Airlines’ president argues that any changes should wait until upgrades to LGA’s terminals are complete so that they can handle additional passengers.

First, it’s also worth remembering the reason for the imposition of the perimeter rule in the first place: managing demand for one particular airport. True, it’s a somewhat crude tool to manage demand (many are already predicting that DCA-style exemptions to the rule is where the PA will end up), and even without the perimeter rule, there are still slot rules to contend with (another tricky subject).

A second challenge is addressing uncertainty: with airport funding dependent on revenues from airline traffic, a small change can have a big impact. Dulles’ capital program has been greatly affected by changes in traffic levels and by mergers in the industry that shift the airport’s importance to their main tenant in an instant. The need for several of the projects (as well as Dulles’ unaddressed capital needs, such as a new C/D concourse) stems from the airport’s original design, unable to foresee the changes in security requirements, airline boarding practice (jet bridges instead of plane mates), or airline business models (deregulation, leading to the adoption of the hub and spoke model, requiring large concourses for transferring passengers). Dulles was planned and built for the jet age. The original decisions on runway geometry and airfield characteristics have proven to be very accurate; the decisions based on predictions about the behavior of both passengers and airlines has been less successful.

Finally, there’s the need to manage the behavior of two different kinds of users: passengers and airlines. Look at the comments in just about any thread about DCA’s perimeter rule and you’ll find plenty of frequent flyers arguing against the rule. Yet, MWAA can’t successfully implement any changes to their airports without the cooperation of their tenant airlines, acting based on their own set of incentives and preferences. In asking about DCA’s ideal role in the DC region, David Alpert asks:

Should DCA be a sort of niche airport with smaller planes to many little destinations, or an airport that tries to serve as much of the travel demand, close in to the center of the region, as possible? There’s no obvious answer.

Not only is the answer not obvious, but the question itself is more complicated: an airport’s role is only as good as the service that airlines provide; the economics of the kinds of service airlines can provide at any given airport will depend a great deal on a number of factors: airport capacity, costs per enplanement, demand for travel, location/role in an airline’s network, etc.

Shifting an airport’s role can’t be imposed on the airlines; it takes a partnership.

Airlines: the strengths and weaknesses for corporate transportation governance

CC image from Christian Junker.

CC image from Christian Junker.

David D’Alessandro’s review of the MBTA’s finances came to a stark conclusion: “A private sector firm faced with this mountain of red ink would likely fold or seek bankruptcy.” That red ink is thanks to a systemic operating deficit; yet as a provider of a key public service, the MBTA was also “too big to fail” and therefore cannot simply cease operations. Likewise, though municipalities and public authorities can declare bankruptcy, they seldom do.

However, there are examples of transportation operators declaring bankruptcy in the face of systemic deficits: airlines. Comparing for-profit airlines to subsidized urban transit might seem like a stretch, but consider the similarities:

  • Both provide a transportation service
  • Both require capital-intensive operations
  • Both are historically a low-margin business; transit has been largely subsidized for generations in the US; historic profitability for airlines is slim-to-nonexistant.
  • Labor is a significant cost for both; both featured highly unionized workforces.
  • Both are sensitive to swings in energy prices
  • Both include a high level of coordination with the government (regulations, funding for facilities, etc)

Reform proposals for the MBTA set goals for reducing operating costs, but didn’t necessarily give the MBTA the tools to reach that goal. Compare that to the major airline reform – the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Prior to deregulation, all air routes needed approval from the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). Matt Yglesias explains:

Passenger aviation clearly needs some regulation for the sake of passenger safety, pollution control, and the community impacts of airports. But in the early decades of the industry, CAB went far beyond that to regulate what fares airlines were allowed to offer and which routes they were allowed to fly. This became a classic case of regulatory capture. Airlines cared a lot about the actions of CAB while ordinary voters had bigger fish to fry. As a consequence, the board ended up creating a cozy cartel where airlines didn’t compete much and certainly didn’t compete on price. With price competition off the table, airlines invested lavishly in offering a high level of service. Labor unions got in on the act, using their clout to force managers and owners to share with workers some of the excess profits generated by CAB.

Removing regulatory approval for new routes unleashed new competition, dramatically lowering airfares for consumers. Airlines explored new route network concepts, eventually leading to the dominance of today’s hub-and-spoke system. Existing airlines still had to work within their cost structure, based on the old regulated business model. Soon, many airlines also faced a sea of red ink. Faced with the same choice David D’Alessandro saw for the MBTA, many airlines either ceased operations or entered bankruptcy.

Today, airlines use bankruptcy as a tool to lower labor costs by renegotiating contracts. Yglesias, writing about the 2011 bankruptcy of American Airlines, notes “the real aim of the filing, in the words of S&P 500 analyst Philip Baggaley is to ’emerge as a somewhat smaller airline with more competitive labor costs.’ ”

While the MBTA Forward Funding plan set goals to reduce operating costs, it did not include the tools to make those cost reductions happen. Using bankruptcy as a tool to reduce structural costs, as airlines have done, might technically be available to a public authority like the MBTA, political pressure often prevents this course of action.

In a look at sustainable transit funding, Ralph Buehler and John Pucher study the fiscal sustainability of German public transport systems. The abstract:

Over the past two decades, Germany has improved the quality of its public transport services and attracted more passengers while increasing productivity, reducing costs, and cutting subsidies. Public transport systems reduced their costs through organizational restructuring and outsourcing to newly founded subsidiaries; cutting employee benefits and freezing salaries; increasing work hours, using part-time employees, expanding job tasks, and encouraging retirement of older employees; cooperation with other agencies to share employees, vehicles, and facilities; cutting underutilized routes and services; and buying new vehicles with lower maintenance costs and greater passenger capacity per driver. Revenues were increased through fare hikes for single tickets while maintaining deep discounts for monthly, semester, and annual tickets; and raising passenger volumes by improved quality of service, and full regional coordination of timetables, fares, and services. Those efforts by public transport agencies were enhanced by the increasing costs and restrictions on car use in German cities. Although the financial performance of German public transport has greatly improved, there are concerns of inequitable burdens on labor, since many of the cost reduction measures involved reducing wages or benefits of workers.

The outcomes aren’t all that different than those achieved by airlines utilizing bankruptcy. Unlike either US airline deregulation or the MBTA’s Big Dig deal on transit expansion as mitigation for a massive increase in urban highway capacity, German reforms also included policies aimed to shift the market in favor of public transportation. Fares and schedules are coordinated though a verkehrsverbund, or transport association.

Setting fares, coordinating routes and timetables sounds awfully similar to the Civil Aeronautics Board. However, because air transport is expected to operate profitably and urban mass transit is not. The middle ground is a structure that can combine the best elements of a for-profit corporation (“run it like a business”) with the public purpose of a government agency or public authority. Writing at Citylab, David Levinson makes the case for governing transit as a regulated public utility, operating as a business and billing the public for the full cost of services:

Like any other enterprise, transit should be successful and cover its costs. This is entirely feasible if we change the model of transit finance from a branch of government to a regulated public utility, as is done in much of Europe and Asia. A public utility provides a service, and in exchange, it is compensated for that service. The compensation comes from consumers (e.g. users, riders), and from the public for any unprofitable services that it wishes to maintain for other (e.g. political) reasons.

Just as the public sector pays the electric utility for street lights, it should pay the transit utility for services that the government insists on but that the transit provider cannot charge users enough for.

The public utility model provides a more realistic model for mass transit than airlines do. The lack of an inherent profit motive makes the direct comparison for airline governance a mis-match; yet there are elements of the private corporation that would inherently benefit public transit, thanks to the similiar roles for airlines and transit agencies.

HSR and the Aerotropolis

Frankfurt Airport long-distance rail station - CC image from Heidas on Wiki

Alon Levy has a post up about the potential for high speed rail to fulfill the goals of ‘decongesting’ US airports. Alon looks at origin/destination pairs and compares the flight time to comparable HSR ranges where the technology has a chance to offer a superior travel time.

The takeaway is that the benefits for airport relief are likely bigger in California than they would be in the Northeast Corridor.  Assuming a fully built out rail system, this makes some intuitive sense: California’s big cities are arranged somewhat linearly along the coast/central valley, just as the NEC cities do along the fall line.  The big difference would appear to be the proximity of other cities – much of the California air traffic is intra-California travel:

Anonymouse in comments brings a good point about the distribution of short-haul travel within airport systems: there is often proportionately more of it at the secondary airports…

The five LA-area airports between them have 27.5% of their domestic traffic within 3-hour radius, but this splits as 21% at LAX, 35% at Long Beach, 37% at Santa Ana, 40% at Ontario, and 63% at Burbank. The three Bay Area airports between them have 19% of their domestic traffic going to LA and a total of 35% within 5-hour train radius, but this splits as 14% and 29% at SFO, 27% and 48% at San Jose, and 35% and 57% at Oakland.

In California, this isn’t a surprise, as SFO and LAX are the big international hubs.  In the Bay Area, SFO is next to the proposed line, but LAX is not.  Translating that to the NEC is different, however.  One element is adjacency – the NEC (or a short extension thereof) runs directly next to DCA, BWI, PHL, and EWR – of which only EWR is a major international hub.

This raises a few issues for HSR trips substituting for flights:  will HSR replace an entire trip, or just one leg of a trip?  If HSR is going to replace one leg of a trip, how easy does the HSR-Airport transfer have to be?  What kinds of trips would make sense for this kind of transfer, and are the best airports positioned along the line to handle them?

On the domestic/short haul flights, commenter Anonymouse writes:

In the Bay Area at least, there’s been a slow tendency for flights to get more concentrated at SFO, with OAK and SJC having mostly domestic flights, and most of those short hauls operated by Southwest. With an HSR line to LA, each of OAK and SJC can easily lose a quarter of its passengers overnight, and with good connections to San Diego, Las Vegas, and Reno, that could become half of all their traffic. SFO and LAX would lose some of their existing passengers, obviously, but not as many, thanks to the fact that they’re hubs. And that means that airlines are more likely to cut flights at the secondary airports, rather than SFO, thus filling the SFO capacity right back up with the passengers displaced from the secondary airports.

On the NEC, a similar retrenchment to the big airports would mean more traffic at IAD, EWR, and JFK.  These three are the busiest international airports along the NEC.  Dulles in particular is one of the few with room to grow, and grow substantially.  The one problem: Dulles (like JFK) isn’t adjacent to the NEC.

Maybe the more interesting case is DCA.  With no international facilities (save for border pre-clearance cities), DCA’s traffic is virtually all domestic.  DCA’s old noise-related perimeter rule also limits most of the destinations to a 1,250 mile radius.  The wiki summary of domestic destinations shows several ripe for rail substitutions (in bold):

Busiest Domestic Routes from DCA (May 2011 – April 2012)[26]
Rank Airport Passengers Carriers
1 Atlanta, Georgia 828,000 AirTran, Delta
2 Chicago (O’Hare), Illinois 697,000 American, United
3 Boston, Massachusetts 685,000 Delta, JetBlue, US Airways
4 Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas 489,000 American, US Airways
5 Miami, Florida 449,000 American
6 New York (LaGuardia), New York 362,000 Delta, US Airways
7 Orlando, Florida 350,000 AirTran, Delta, JetBlue, US Airways
8 Fort Lauderdale, Florida 315,000 JetBlue, Spirit, US Airways
9 Charlotte, North Carolina 294,000 US Airways
10 Houston, Texas 264,000 United

The same data for BWI:

Busiest domestic routes from BWI (May 2011 – April 2012)[33]
Rank City Passengers Airline(s)
1 Atlanta, Georgia 720,000 AirTran, Delta, Southwest
2 Boston, Massachusetts 549,000 AirTran, JetBlue, Southwest
3 Charlotte, North Carolina 483,000 AirTran, US Airways
4 Orlando, Florida 463,000 AirTran, Southwest
5 Detroit, Michigan 342,000 Delta, Southwest
6 Tampa, Florida 301,000 AirTran, Southwest
7 Denver, Colorado 294,000 Southwest, United
8 Providence, Rhode Island 293,000 Southwest
9 Fort Lauderdale, Florida 283,000 AirTran, Southwest
10 Manchester, NH 273,000 Southwest

These two airports would seem to be the candidates to see a lot of rail trip substitution, with Dulles remaining the region’s predominant international hub.

Again, the problem is that Dulles is not along the NEC, preventing the kind of air/rail connection you see in Frankfurt or in Paris.  Or, look at the top destination for both DCA and BWI – Atlanta.  Given Atlanta’s massive hub status, what kind of air-rail connection would be required to get passengers to use the train for the first leg of that journey? Making the connection to get an international flight at Frankfurt is one thing, but doing so in Atlanta is another – particularly if the rail and air terminals are not co-located.

Having a great HSR-Airport station at DCA or BWI is relatively easy (compared to, say, IAD).  Alon makes this observation about California:

Note, by the way, how California is planning the Oakland Airport Connector and considering an HSR station at Burbank Airport instead of downtown Burbank. Because if there’s one place Californians would really need to use HSR to get to, it’s an airport 63% of whose traffic competes with HSR.

Now, a DCA rail station has far more potential that just serving the airport (it would essentially replace the current Crystal City VRE station and could easily offer pedestrian connections to both Crystal City and to National Airport), and it would be far more than just the massive parking garage that is the BWI rail station.  Burbank (~2.5 million passengers a year) also isn’t anywhere near National Airport (~18 million passengers a year). So, what might the future look like for DCA and BWI in an age of ubiquitous HSR? Alon offers one possibility:

For New York, the best things that can be done then are to use larger planes on domestic flights, and find relief airports. In Japan, the domestic flights use widebodies, sometimes even 747s, and this has enabled Tokyo-Sapporo to grow to become the world’s highest-capacity air city pair. In the US there are more airlines and the city pairs are less thick, but there is still room for larger planes than 737s and 757s.

Changing DCA’s perimeter restriction could plausibly open the door to such a change, though security and airfield restrictions limit that to some degree. (Boeing did recently bring a 787 into DCA for display, and Delta did operate 767s into DCA to add passenger capacity prior to the Obama inauguration – would’ve been fun to be at Gravelly Point for that.) Larger planes, and potentially different destinations – if HSR changes the distribution of the airline hub model.

Commenter Jonathan English offers a competing hypothesis:

Unfortunately, major American airlines (compared with European and Asian airlines) are obsessed with frequency. They believe that they will only attract business travellers if they offer many flights per day, in many cases hourly or even more. This means that even if high-speed rail really eats into the number of people flying, airlines may just compensate by down-gauging from 737s and 320s to regional jets. They’ll still operate just as many flights and put the same pressure on runways.

Given the importance of frequency to transit, complaining about frequent air service might seem a bit ungrateful, but air travel isn’t really like transit.  Due to limited capacity and security, you must schedule in advance. Security, logistics, and airport location demands an early arrival.

Predicting what the air travel marketplace will look like in this hypothetical scenario is somewhat pointless – what if oil prices spike? What if there is political action on global warming resulting in a carbon tax or something like it? Air travel will most certainly still have a major (and a high value) role in linking these places, but exactly which places are linked could easily be disrupted.

The difficulty of unintended consequences – airlines, HSR, and deregulation

Pittsburgh International Airport - CC image from Fred

Philip Longman and Lina Khan make the case for re-regulating America’s airlines, claiming that deregulation is killing air travel and taking de-hubbed cities like St. Louis with it (hat tip to Matt Yglesias).  The authors do indeed present compelling evidence that airline deregulation has indeed shifted the economic geography of many cities in the US – but as Matt Yglesias notes (channeling the aerotropolis thesis), in many cases this is merely an example of the air travel network’s ability to emphasize agglomeration economies:

They observe that… once the imposition of market competition caused some medium-sized midwestern cities to lose flights, the per flight cost of the remaining ones went up. That tends to produce a death spiral. Eventually the market reaches a new equilibrium with fewer, but more expensive flights. Except that equilibrium tends to drive businesses out of town. And once Chiquita leaves town, Cincinnati will have even fewer aviation opportunities which will further impair the business climate for the remaining large companies in the city.

This is a great concrete and usefully non-mystical illustration of agglomeration externalities.

Yglesias argues that fighting these agglomeration economies is counter-productive, but that’s not the only flaw in Longman and Khan’s thinking. Using the example of Pittsburgh, where the America West-US Air merger meant PIT losing hub status, they cite examples of the problems this represents for business travel:

K&L Gates, one of the country’s largest law firms, used to hold its firm-wide management meeting near its Pittsburgh headquarters, but after flying in and out of the city became too much trouble, the firm began hosting its meetings outside of New York City and Washington, D.C. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the biggest employer in the region, reports that its researchers and physicians are increasingly choosing to drive to professional conferences whenever they can. Flying between Pittsburgh and New York or Washington can now easily take a whole day, since most flights have to route through Philadelphia or Charlotte. A recent check on Travelocity showed just two direct flights from Pittsburgh to D.C., each leaving shortly before six in the morning and costing (one week in advance) $498 each way, or approximately $2.62 per mile.

The problem is that Pittsburgh to New York and Pittsburgh to DC aren’t all that long as the crow flies.  Longman and Khan explain why that’s problematic, thanks to those pesky laws of physics:

One reason this business model doesn’t work is that it’s at odds with the basic physics of flying. It requires a tremendous amount of energy just to get a plane in the air. If the plane lands just a short time later, it’s hard to earn the fares necessary to cover the cost. This means the per-mile cost to the airlines of short-haul service is always going to be much higher than that of long-haul service, regardless of how the industry is organized.

Indeed, part of the economic logic of the airline hub was to ferry passengers to the hub via loss leader (or, hopefully, less profitable) short-haul routes so that they can then use the more profitable long-haul services – transcontinental and international flights, and the like.  The problem is that Longman and Khan can’t see beyond the end of the runway.  We have a transportation technology that has a different economic calculus, one that works well for those shorter trips up to about 500 miles – high speed rail.

This isn’t to counteract Matt’s first point – just because HSR can make travel time competitive with air travel over such distances does not mean building it will be cost-effective, but the broader point is about the need to think beyond the modal silos.  Current rail service from Pittsburgh to DC and New York isn’t time-competitive with flying, even with those connecting flights.  But HSR could be. Indeed, given the current economics of the aviation industry, HSR ought to have a larger role in key corridors.

Indeed, Longman and Khan do consider rail in their article, but they pick out the history of railroad regulation instead:

 By the 1880s, the fortunes of such major cities as Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cincinnati rose and fell according to how various railroad financiers or “robber barons” combined and conspired to fix rates. Just as Americans scream today about the high cost of flying to a city like Cincinnati, where service is dominated by a single carrier, Americans of yesteryear faced impossible price discrimination when traveling or shipping to places dominated by a single railroad “trust” or “pool.”

This, more than any other factor, is what led previous generations of Americans to let go of the idea that government should have no role in regulating railroads and other emerging networked industries that were essential to the working of the economy as whole.

The problem with applying this logic to the current airline situation is that the railroads of the turn of the century didn’t just have a monopoly over a given town as the sole operator of service along the line, but they had a monopoly on the very technology that could offer such increases in mobility.

That technological mobility is no longer the case.  The excellent Mark Reutter article The Lost Promise of the American Railroad (now behind a paywall) documents the many reasons for the decline of American rail, including new competing technologies (both air travel and cars taking away long distance travelers as well as commuters), outdated regulations (such as WWII era taxes meant to reduce unnecessary travel during the war – and were quite successful at doing so – that remained in place until the mid 1960s), direct subsidization of competitors by the government (see taxpayer funded highways and airports, in the face of largely privately financed and taxed rail assets), and differing regulatory regimes.

The regulations present a compelling story.  The original regulations, as noted by Longman and Khan, were devised in an era before heavier-than-air human flight had even occurred – yet alone before the rise of commercial aviation.  Yet, the regulations devised by the Interstate Commerce Commission (formed in 1887) were the basis for a portion of the blame for the decline of American rail less than a century later.  Longman and Khan defend the need to regulate, despite these shortcomings:

To be sure, any regulatory regime can degenerate and wind up stifling competition, and the CAB of the late 1970s did become too procedure bound, ruled, as it came to be, by contending private lawyers rather than technocrats. It would have helped, too, if the country had not largely abandoned antitrust action after the Reagan administration. But even strong antitrust enforcement wouldn’t have helped that much, because airlines— just like railroads, waterworks, electrical utilities, and most other networked systems—require concentration both to achieve economies of scale and to enable the cross-subsidization between low- and high-cost service necessary to preserve their value as networks. And when it comes to such natural monopolies that are essential to the public, there is no equitable or efficient alternative to having the government regulate or coordinate entry, prices, and service levels—no matter how messy the process may be.

While this can be a compelling case for the need for regulation in the abstract, it doesn’t present a compelling case for the content of those regulations.  How can these regulations possibly change to reflect changing economic realities, such as the rise of new technology?

Chris Bradford put forth an interesting idea regarding land use regulation: give all zoning codes an expiration date (a similar idea to the zoning budget).  If the anti-trust and equity concerns are so great as to require this kind of regulation, requiring some sort of periodic review is an interesting idea for simulating some of the innovation and competition that a freer market might provide.

The extreme positions aren’t that illuminating.  Likewise, merely promoting the idea of regulation in the abstract (without speaking to the content and effects of those regulations) isn’t helpful, either.  The specifics matter. Regulation for the sake of regulation is pointless, and we must have mechanisms for continual re-evaluation of the regulations we do have to ensure they actually work towards our stated policy goals.  All too often, this re-evaluation falls short.

This isn’t meant to be a broadside against regulation – far from it.  There’s clearly a role for it.  Instead, I ask for periodic review to ensure the regulations are helping achieve our objectives rather than hindering them. Likewise, the inevitable reality is that whatever regulations we impose now will have unforseen, unintended consequences.

Enjoy the journey

Metro-North Bar Car

The New York Times has a couple interesting pieces on transportation, one dealing with volcanoes and the other with booze.

First, the obligatory volcano story: Seth Stevenson thinks the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull and the subsequent shutdown of air travel across the continent offers an opportunity to really enjoy travel, rather than just flying over the landscape (and all the interesting stuff) at 35,000 feet.

In the five decades or so since jets became the dominant means of long-haul travel, the world has benefited immeasurably from the speed and convenience of air travel. But as Orson Welles intoned in “The Magnificent Ambersons,” “The faster we’re carried, the less time we have to spare.” Indeed, airplanes’ accelerated pace has infected nearly every corner of our lives. Our truncated vacation days and our crammed work schedules are predicated on the assumption that everyone will fly wherever they’re going, that anyone can go great distances and back in a very short period of time.

So we are condemned to keep riding on airplanes. Which is not really traveling. Airplanes are a means of ignoring the spaces in between your point of origin and your destination. By contrast, a surface journey allows you to look out on those spaces — at eye level and on a human scale, not peering down through breaks in the clouds from 35,000 feet above — from the observation car of a rolling train or the deck of a gently bobbing ship. Surface transport can be contemplative, picturesque and even enchanting in a way that air travel never will be.

Stevenson is so dedicated to this idea that he and his girlfriend successfully circumnavigated the globe without leaving the surface of the earth.

Stevenson’s admonishment of the jet age also stands in contrast to a piece in Sunday’s Washington Post, instructing us to ignore nostalgia for the golden years of airline travel.  Brett Snyder defends airline deregulation and the seemingly inevitable fees for carry on luggage as a further step into the purity of free markets.

I have a copy of TWA’s flight schedule from June 1, 1959. The first jets were being introduced into the fleet, but the vast majority of flights were still on propeller-driven aircraft. There’s an ad in the timetable for TWA’s low coast-to-coast “excursion fares.” Los Angeles to New York was only $168.40 roundtrip, if you traveled Monday through Thursday in Sky Club Coach class. That bargain is roughly equivalent to $1,225 today, before tax.

These fares weren’t valid on the fastest aircraft, so you had only two options, neither of which went nonstop. There was the 10:10 a.m. departure from Los Angeles that arrived in New York at 11:41 p.m. that night or the 7:55 p.m. departure that arrived at 10:56 a.m. the next day — more than 12 hours in the air. This was on a Lockheed Constellation, which, while beautiful, bounced you around in the weather at about 20,000 feet, far below the 35,000 to 40,000 feet you’d cruise at today. Even when the weather was good, that trademark prop vibration left you feeling like you were sitting on a washing machine for hours after you landed.

It is curious that Snyder chose to contrast today’s deregulated jet age with the age of turboprops – he could have easily picked a schedule from 1973 instead of 1959 – flying on a brand-new Boeing 747, rather than a dusty old Constellation – and at least been comparing jet-age apples to apples.

Still, the contrast between Stevenson’s nostalgia and Snyder’s rejection of is interesting, even if both are speaking toward different ends. Snyder writes about the benefits of market efficiency and competition for passengers, while Stevenson writes of enjoying the journey.

Perhaps there’s no greater way to enjoy the journey than to enjoy happy hour at the same time.  With that in mind, the New York Times writes about the endangered bar cars on Metro-North trains from Grand Central to Connecticut.

A new fleet of cars will soon replace the 1970s-era models now used by commuters on the Metro-North Railroad line heading to Connecticut. But with money tight, railroad officials said they could not yet commit themselves to a fresh set of bar cars, citing higher costs for the cars’ custom design.

“They’re being contemplated,” said Joseph F. Marie, Connecticut’s commissioner of transportation. “But we have not made any final decisions.”

Defenders of the boozy commute say it helps raise revenue: After expenses, bar cars and platform vendors made $1.5 million last year, up from $1.3 million in 2008. (Officials would not say if a bar car makes more money than a car with the normal number of seats.)

The Times note that fellow bar cars in Chicago, New Jersey, Westchester County, and the Long Island Railroad have all gone the way of the Dodo – though LIRR trains still occasionally have bar carts that make it on trains.

Modeled after the private club cars of the early 20th century, the Grand Central bar car sought to bring a perk of high society to the everyday commuting class. Still, the car’s current incarnation is more bar-around-the-corner than Tavern on the Green.

The cars tend to break down, air-conditioning is creaky, and commuters have been known to sneak duct tape aboard for impromptu repairs.

The article’s accompanying slide show has great historical images of the bar cars in action.