Gridlock in the skies

John T. Starr

November 30, 1990|By John T. Starr

A COMMITTEE of the National Research Council, in a recently released study for the Federal Aviation Administration suggested wide-ranging improvements in the nation's air transport system, from expanding many airports to increasing plane size to accommodate as many as 1,000 passengers each.

This report, entitled "Airport System Capacity: Strategic Choices," followed a one-year study of the requirements imposed by projected air traffic volumes into the early and mid-21st century. To be sure, improvements in air transport are called for especially in high density corridors such as between Washington and Boston, New York and Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. But such improvements will fall far short of the needs in these already densely packed air lanes. If more airports are an answer, where can they be built?

Rather than continue to exacerbate an already difficult situation, isn't it time that attention be turned from our continued expansion of air service in a space that is rapidly reaching the saturation point? The potential for accidents of catastrophic proportion is heightened with each additional flight. The number of flights, of course, could be reduced by the introduction of larger planes but what if one of these craft failed to land safely at a busy Northeast airport?

Why not begin now to direct attention to the improved use of surface space for rapid transfer of passengers? The NRC report includes among its recommendations the potential for development of high-speed surface transport technology "to serve as substitutes or supplements for air travel, especially in the range of 200 to 400 miles." Unfortunately, the recommendation is buried within the document (indeed, it is the committee's final option).

Instead of allowing the problem to worsen, doesn't it make more sense to reserve the congested airports of the future (and the clogged air space approaching them) for long distance air transport for distances of, say, 750 miles or more? Such space could be freed up and the likelihood of mid-air calamity drastically reduced if investment were begun now in improved surface (or subsurface) transport for distances of up to 750 miles. The experience in Japan and France has shown that speeds of up to 300 miles per hour are possible. With such promising technologies as magnetic levitation, which has been tested successfully in both Germany and Japan, even greater speeds might be reached, making ground transport more competitive with air on the basis of speed alone not to mention the convenience of more centrally located stations within the cities they serve.

Recognizing these problems in 1990 provides time for an alternative solution a surface solution -- by the time the problem reaches massive gridlock conditions shortly after the turn of the 21st century. Then, with a good alternative to air travel for distances of up to 750 miles, the FAA can restrict commercial air carriers to distances in excess of that threshold in the nation's high-density corridors.

In so doing, each form of transportation would be able to concentrate on providing the service for which it has the greatest comparative advantage. Our skies will be safer. Passengers will have the mobility they require; and the entire transport system will be operating in an efficient, least-cost manner. The air and surface modes will complement rather than compete ` all in the public interest.

John T. Starr is associate professor of geography at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.


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