Off into the Wild Blue Yonder

Post-Modern Perspectives on Air Travel

In our world, for $400, we can travel from New York to San Francisco and back as a weekend trip; pretty incredible when you stop to think about it.  Especially considering that if you go back a mere 150 years, transcontinental travel was neither affordable, safe nor rapid.  Prior to the completion of the intercontinental railroad in 1869, the fastest and safest route from New York to San Francisco (which was by any modern standard neither safe nor fast) was by sailing around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, a 14,000 mile trek lasting weeks.  The other option being by land via the Oregon or California trail (and you thought it was upsetting when your daughter died of dysentery in the video game).  After the Panama Canal, a world-changing technological achievement, was completed in 1914, transcontinental travel by rail and by sea became equivalent in speed and affordability – in that neither route could be described accurately as either of these.   If you are a twenty something like me, it was certainly within the lifetime of our grandparents, if not our parents, that air travel became widely available in the United States. Moreover, it continues, to this day, to be a luxury that the majority of the world’s population will never experience.  The International Air Transport Association estimates that less than one billion of the roughly 6.8 billion people currently living have ever flown in an airplane. Yet for many citizens of the developed world, including myself, commercial flying has become so mundane that we are able to find fault with the smallest details of air travel.  The cabin is too cold. The air is too dry.  They only have Coke products.  The Wi-Fi has been out for the whole flight!

It is quite common for those in my socioeconomic peer group to take the ability to travel by plane for granted.  Plans for large reunions, getaways and conferences are made months in advance based on the underlying assumption that affordable, reliable air travel will be available to accommodate their plans.  We can’t be faulted though.  This is a natural thought process because commercial airlines have offered exactly this product to would-be travelerssince most of us can remember.  However, is this practice sustainable and, if not, how long until the party is over?

While the matter is quite controversial, a considerable cohort of petroleum geologists and economists believe that the world oil peak (the high water mark for world petroleum production and a level which will never be attained again) is immediately imminent and most believe it will occur before 2050. If air travel using alternatively fueled crafts hasn’t been established by the time peak oil rolls around, flying will once again become a luxury available only to the ultra-wealthy as it was at its inception (imagine a $50,000 flight to London). Then, ultimately, it will revert to a fanciful notion limited to dwelling solely within the human imagination. I wonder how many of our peers would continue to cite travel as a hobby if it consisted of days-to-weeks aboard a sea ship to reach their final destination.  Personally, I would take up crossword puzzles at that point.

It seems to me that we are living in a unique and historic period of human history: a relatively short era (unless we find out how to run our world on something other than oil) where cheap and relatively abundant fuel is available to power technology that makes leisurely, cheap and rapid global tourism possible and affordable.  Whether you respond to this reality by trying to conserve petroleum via car traveling instead of flying (which is much more efficient per person*mile traveled) or taking to the skies as much as possible to get yours while the getting’s good is between you and your conscience. But, if I might offer a modest proposal to brighten the travel days of you and everyone else: let’s try to reclaim and appreciate some of the miracle of flight while it’s available to us.  There will almost certainly be annoyances and inconveniences interwoven into any flight itinerary, but remember we’re historically a select few who can manageably cross an ocean in an afternoon and all with a relatively low risk of developing scurvy.  So, happy trails to you because, hey, you can fly –how about that?


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