August 21, 1998 -- Let me ask you a question: When was the last time you went over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house?
Take your time. I'll wait. I've got a flat-rate ISP.
Can't think of the last time, can you? Every time you go anywhere these days, you use an airport, don't you?
You fly on business. You fly to see grandma. You fly to go on vacation. Hell, you probably even fly to get to some place where you can go over a river and through the woods!
You've probably never thought about it, but, as we reach the new millennium, airlines and airports have become our nation's mass transit system. Trains are dead. Buses are dead. And, in case you haven't noticed, even with gas at a buck a gallon, no one drives the Interstate when they can fly.
The numbers are startling. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 599 million people flew in 1997, up 34 percent from ten years ago. In the year 2007, the American Automobile Association believes 900 million people will fly, an increase of 50 percent in the next nine years.
What are we, as a nation, doing about this burgeoning form of mass transit? How are we ensuring that we can fly off to see granny, or fly to a business meeting, or fly to hallowed playground where we can go over a river and through the woods?
We ain't doing nothing. Nada. Zip.
In the 1990s, we have built exactly two new passenger airports: Denver International and a small facility in Arkansas that's useless unless you happen to sell widgets to Wal-Mart, which is the main customer of the Arkansas aerodrome. Oh, we've retrofitted a facility or two--Pittsburgh and Ronald Reagan National in Washington, DC, come to mind--but Denver International basically stands alone. And are we planning to build any new airports in the first decade of the 21st Century? Nope.
We are, to use the vernacular of my home town of Brooklyn, cruising for a bruising.
If you dislike your travel experience now, you're gonna despise travel in the 21st Century. Airport terminals will be strained beyond the bursting point. Airport gates and ticket counters, already chaotic, will become madhouses. Airport access roads, already choked with traffic, will become impassable. And what passes for our inter-modal mass transit system will be even further taxed. Only two major airports--San Francisco International and Kennedy International in New York--are even building or planning new mass-transit links.
I specialize in drawing draconian scenarios in situations like this. But why bother? You can create your own horrific picture, All you need do is imagine the airport you visited most recently. Than stuff twice as many people into that vision.
That's what the immediate future of air travel looks like. Pretty awful, isn't it?
What's most frustrating is that the parlous state of air travel is something we can fix. And we really don't need money. We're already taxing travelers like crazy.
In fact, our air-traffic troubles are the reverse of most of our societal ills. Usually, we have terrific ideas for wonderful new public works and absolutely no cash to fund them.
Not so the air system. The federal tax you pay on every airline ticket you buy goes to the Airport and Airways Trust Fund. As of September, the fund has a surplus of $2.2 billion.
"This fund generates nearly $600 million a year in interest," explains Mark Brown, executive vice president of the AAA. "Unspent, the fund will balloon to almost $48 billion in 10 years."
Forget about the hotel taxes and car-rental surcharges you pay, billions of dollars annually that usually go to build a stadium for some millionaire owner of a sports franchise. Just focus on that Trust Fund: more than $2 billion now and maybe $48 billion in 10 years.
Funds we got. It's ideas we need. Brother, can you spare an airport design?This column originally appeared at ThoughtfulTraveler.com.