Waiting for my air taxi

While traveling to Snowmass Village, Colorado today for the EDUCAUSE Seminars in Academic Computing, I listened to a pair of podcasts: Steward Brand at PopTech and Esther Dyson at ITConversations. As often happens, I thought of questions I’d like to ask, and if I can bring those two onto my own show sometime I’ll do just that. In this particular case, I’d love to have a conversation at the intersection of the topics discussed on those podcasts. Stewart Brand’s topic was world urbanization. It’s a major theme for him lately, and has been the subject of several of the Long Now talks — including his own on cities and time, and Robert Neuwirth’s on the nature and dynamics of squatter cities. We’re becoming an urban planet, Brand says. The crossover moment, when more than half of humanity lives in the cities, may already have occurred, or else soon will. He thinks we’ll go far beyond it in this century, becoming a mostly urban world.

Of course Stewart Brand has been wrong before, as he freely admits. Decades ago he worried about the population explosion. But while he’s astonished by the doubling that’s occurred in his lifetime, he’s even more astonished to think that it was probably the last doubling, and that after leveling out at between 7 and 9 billion the world population is expected to sharply decline.

Could he be wrong again? Could humanity’s rush to the cities slow down or even reverse? Since the concentration of economic opportunity in cities is what brings people there, it would take a dispersal of economic opportunity to enable those who would prefer the countryside to remain there.

One powerful force that’s dispersing economic opportunity is of course the Interent. A decade ago there were a few lucky souls who could pull an income through a modem. Today there are lots more, and we’ve yet to see what may happen once high-bandwidth telepresence finally gets going.

But a second force for dispersion has yet to kick in at all. It is the Internetization of transportation — and specifically, of air travel. That’s where Esther Dyson comes in. She’s investing in several of the companies that are aiming to reinvent air travel in the ways described by James Fallows in his seminal book on this topic, Free Flight. In that vision of a possible future, a fleet of air taxis takes small groups of passengers directly from point to point, bypassing the dozen or so congested hubs and reactivating the thousands of small airports — some near big cities, many elsewhere.

There are two key technological enablers. First a new fleet of small planes that are lighter, faster, smarter, safer, and more fuel-efficient than the current fleet of general aviation craft with their decades-old designs.

The second enabler is the Internet’s ability to make demand visible, and to aggregate that demand. So, for example, I’m traveling today from Keene, NH to Aspen, CO. If there are a handful of fellow travelers wanting to go between those two endpoints — or between, say, 40-mile-radius circles surrounding them, which circles might contain several small airports — we’d use the Internet to rendezvous with one another and with an air taxi.

For me that could be a huge win. There’s an airport not much more than a mile from my house with a runway that can land Air Force One, and in political seasons sometimes does. Years ago we had commercial air service to Boston and New York thanks to a federal essential air service subsidy, but that wasn’t enough to keep the operation going and now it’s gone. So my day looks like this:

1. Drive to Boston’s Logan airport: 2 hours. I can sometimes fly from Manchester, NH, which is only an hour and a quarter, but almost never directly to anywhere. And since today already involves an unavoidable hub — Denver — I’m avoiding a second by going directly there.

2. Logan’s economy lot to the United terminal: 20 minutes. It can be worse, but today the bus was there waiting and left quickly.

3. Clear security and wait: 1.5 hours.

4. Logan to Denver: 4 hours.

5. Layover in Denver: 2 hours.

6. Denver to Aspen: 1 hour.

7. Cab to Snowmass: 30 minutes.

The hypothetical air taxi scenario looks like this:

1. Drive to Keene airport: 6 minutes.

2. Clear security and wait: 30 minutes.

3. Passenger pickup in Amherst, MA: 30 minues.

4. Passenger pickup in Albany, NY: 30 minutes.

5. Albany to Aspen: 7 hours.

Cab to Snowmass: 30 minutes.

Let’s compare the two scenarios:

conventional air taxi difference
Drive to airport 2 0.1 (1.90)
Shuttle bus 0.33 0 (0.33)
Security and waiting 1.5 0.5 (1.00)
Passenger pickup 0 0.5 0.50
Passenger pickup 0 0.5 0.50
Main flight 4 7 3.00
Layover 2 0 (2.00)
Secondary flight 1 0 (1.00)
Cab 0.5 0.5 0.00
11.33 9.1 2.23

According to this back-of-the-envelope calculation, the air taxi scenario isn’t a huge win. It only shaves a couple of hours off the trip, and we haven’t even considered how the prices of the two scenarios will compare.

But if I put on my Clayton Christensen hat and look at this from the perspective of disruptive technology, it seems that the positive values in the difference column are much less fungible than the negative values. In the conventional scenario, I don’t expect any significant reduction in the time it takes to get to, or through, hub airports. In the air taxi scenario, however, I can imagine significant reduction on two fronts. If this model starts to succeed, there will be more aggregatable demand and thus fewer required multi-hop passenger pickups. And there will also be more incentive to make smaller planes fly faster. As with other disruptive technologies the air taxi system at first underperforms the incumbent system, but has lots of headroom for improvement.

I have no idea if this will come to pass, or if I’ll live long enough to personally benefit from it. But it’s something I always think about on trips like this one. Looking out the window of the plane I can see a big world down there, full of many beautiful places that are mostly empty and — if Stewart Brand is right — are only going to get emptier.

Maybe it’s true that, given a choice and all other things being equal, most people would prefer to live in settlements of millions to tens of millions rather than tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. But things aren’t equal, and while the quality of life I enjoy living in a settlement of tens of thousands is special in many ways, I pay a price for it. On travel days like today, I’m reminded that dealing with hub-and-spoke air travel is a fairly significant part of that price.

I don’t doubt that the world will continue to urbanize but I do wonder about the architecture of the emerging network of cities. Will the growth of megacities preclude the growth of towns and small cities, or can we flourish across this range of scales? The Internet is already enabling the latter in ways that I don’t think have yet been factored in to the predictions about world urbanization. Add to that the Internetization of air travel and things just might turn out rather differently than predicted.


PS: After writing this enroute, my Denver to Aspen hop was cancelled due to thunderstorms. So it took another four hours to rent a car and drive 150 miles. On the bright side, six of us shared a minivan, and it was a wonderful group: a brain surgeon, a CTO, a psychologist, an artist, and a telecommunications and real estate entrepeneur. We talked the whole time in a way that rarely happens on planes but that, it struck to me, might be more likely to happen in the more intimate cabin of an air taxi.

10 Comments

  1. The problem I see with these sorts of medium-to-long-term air travel plans is that they assume that it will continue to be affordable for a significant number of people, which assumes that petroleum won’t siginificantly increase in expense in the coming decades. “More fuel efficient” may only be helpful if it means more by orders of magnitute, and maybe not even then. Why isn’t this assumption being more seriously questioned?

  2. First, to your PS: As you know, thunderstorms can cancel *any* flight whose crew don’t have a death wish. The “big iron” going long distances can cruise above a lot of enroute stuff, or deviate; a 300-mile taxi flight really doesn’t have that many route options. And I bet you’re right: smaller cabins are much more likely to lead to interaction.

    Since the biggest drivers of bizjet acquisition are executive efficiency and bragging rights (no bets as to which buys more airplanes), there’s already heavy pressure to make ’em fast. And, indeed, Cessna’s Citation X already outruns the airliners (Mach 0.92, or 525 knots, at 43,000 feet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cessna_Citation_X#Key_performance_figures). Don’t expect much improvement there, especially since that whole cube-of-speed power equation is a real MPG killer. However, I think you’re right to expect a higher proportion of direct flights once demand ramps up.

    Personally I believe the biggest wins will lie not in speed enroute, but in reduced ground-transport time (as you note), less wait-time in airports, and many, many fewer flights canceled or delayed due to congestion. Hub-and-spoke grew from big operators’ economies of scale, and it’s crushing the hub airports. The system is so overloaded that a line of thunderstorms in northern Illinois can completely derange air travel across the whole country, just because so many birds have to touch down at ORD in a given day to make the current system work.

    Imagine if the Internet, instead of arising in parallel all over, had been centrally engineered by, say, AT&T, who decided that all packets, even the ones on LANs, had to travel through one of four routers in San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and New York. You’d get a lot of PhD theses out of the resulting congestion and chaotic behavior, but not much reliable bandwidth.

    This becomes even more important when you consider the proportion of business trips shorter than your NH-to-CO odyssey. If I want to travel 200 miles between the state capitals of Wisconsin and Illinois, I’d be insane to include a stop at O’Hare. But unless I take my own plane, I’ve no other choice.

    Whoops, revealed my true colors there. Yes, I aviate, and so I have a serious hatchet to sharpen when it comes to “reactivating” those small airports, which are closing at a scary rate. Once they’re strip malls and McMansions, they won’t ever be airports again, and if people like Fallows and Dyson are right, we’re going to need them.

    I’m reasonably hopeful that we will. Charter flights are already up, driven mostly by business people angry with having their time frittered away by delays and near-strip searches. (If you come fly with me sometime, Jon, I won’t make you take your shoes off. Promise. And that’s perfectly appropriate to security: A six-passenger taxi just doesn’t make much of a terrorist target, let alone my four-seat Cessna spam can! So we can confidently expect that security delays for airliners will continue to dwarf those for general aviation. 30 minutes may be overstating the case.)

    I recall being interviewed at the Oshkosh airshow by a couple of NASA personnel well over a decade ago; they were trying to identify crucial enabling technologies to revitalize the air transportation system from the bottom up. And it worked: Today’s glass cockpits and advanced powerplants are a direct outgrowth of that NASA program, and the new airplanes bearing them actually are more efficient and safer than, say, my 32-year-old Cessna. We’ve also come a long way from airplanes calling in position reports to controllers moving “shrimp boat” markers around on a table; radar and centralized control are becoming passe as GPS- and datalink-enabled, distributed traffic control is on the horizon (see, for example, the Capstone program in Alaska).

    Wow. Progress, happening in my lifetime.

  3. “I believe the biggest wins will lie not in speed enroute, but in reduced ground-transport time (as you note), less wait-time in airports, and many, many fewer flights canceled or delayed due to congestion.”

    Exactly. Aggregate system throughput.

    “Today’s glass cockpits and advanced powerplants are a direct outgrowth of that NASA program”

    I read in the Fallows book — or maybe elsewhere, I’m not sure — that NASA’s former administrator Dan Goldin was a major force behind the air taxi movement. Reportedly he spent years clocking his end-to-end time on trips and found that for distances less than — I seem to recall 300 miles? — driving was quicker.

  4. “Why isn’t this assumption being more seriously questioned?”

    Maybe because that issue applies across the board to all modes of transportation.

  5. “Maybe because that issue applies across the board to all modes of transportation.”

    Not all modes of transportation are equally efficient in their use of energy, so significantly increased energy prices will certainly not apply across the board. Also, some forms of transportation are more flexible in the type of energy used – rail systems can be run on electricity, for example, even if/when petroleum is so expensive as to be impractical for transportation to business meetings.

    In other words, what you think about the future of energy pricing and availability should influence the kinds of investments you make in transportation systems.

  6. Jon,

    I remember reading about a company called “Eclipse Aviation” (http://www.eclipseaviation.com/index.html) which was building a small, cheap to operate, light jet which they hoped would create and “air taxi” market. The belief was that operating costs for jets meant that an air taxi service wouldn’t be viable with traditional aircraft but a new aircraft with different economics could change the game. I seem to remember the aircraft also being notable for using “comoditiy” hardware and operating systems in it Avionics.

    Just looking at their web site, it looks like their aircraft achieved FAA Airworthiness certification last year and the first one has now been delivered to its new owner.

    Jim.

  7. Hi Jon,

    Your assumptions about Air Taxis leave out a major gating factor: the dilapidated state of our Air Traffic Control System. Without massive investment, the system will be unable to cope with the volume that the Air Taxi concept promises. Read Richard Aboulafia (among others) ((I’d link to his articles directly but his site seems to be down at the moment)) for the sobering reality of Air Taxis.

  8. Transportation now consumes more than 20% of the world’s total primary energy and produces much of the world’s air pollution. In just 30 years, the number of cars in the world will soar from today’s 400 million or so, to more than one billion. Private transportation will then need 2-1/2 times more energy and produce 2-1/2 times more air pollution. If global trends are projected to year 2100, the world will need 10 times more total energy, and transportation will consume 40% of this much larger pool.

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