The Continuing Presumption of Airlines

I am prepared to admit that the California Bullet Train may prove to be a failure, even though France, Spain, Germany, and China have them! I voted for the train originally, not so much to eliminate automobiles, but as an alternative to airplanes, where you have to jump through so many security hoops to get on them [this, I admit, is not the airlines’ fault] and the airlines schedule connections so tight that they can only be made if it’s 70 degrees and no wind! In the presence of any other weather or other conditions, their extremely fragile schedule shatters. I don’t like fragility anyhow; it seems to me there should always be some wiggle room. But I guess that’s not ‘efficient.’

Now in the Wall Street Journal we read that airplanes flying westward from Europe to America have, because of high level winds, had to make unscheduled fuel stops at places like Gander, Newfoundland, which have hardly been heard of [except during the 9/11 attack] since the era of prop planes. This would not be a bad thing in itself, except that connections are missed. I didn’t fly commercial in the prop plane era, but I remember that in the early 60s refueling stops were often factored in. In fact, the only time I have ever been on Greenland’s soil was in 1963, when an SAS plane bound from Copenhagen to Los Angeles refueled at a place called Soendre Stroemfjord, Greenland. [I assume, now that Greenland is Kallaalit Nunaat, that the place is called something else now.] And in the Pacific, I remember going to Tokyo in 1979 or 1983 – I don’t remember which –and the plane stopped to refuel in Honolulu, which was strange because I’d already reset my watch and it said a day later than it actually was in Honolulu. But this was the Pacific, and new planes around 1990 eliminated these stops. Now, it seems, we are having them again on the Atlantic route, going west. And they always take the airlines by surprise, the airlines, as usual, having configured their schedules on an assumption of 70 degrees and no wind, which of course is more ‘efficient’ but doesn’t work if it isn’t 70 degrees or there is wind.

I fear that the airlines are now in the position that railroads occupied in the late 19th century. Farmers were outraged at rates that charged less to transport things a long distance than a short distance – and now, it is very easy to pay a lot more to fly a short distance on a plane than a long one. In fact, the first delegated ‘quasi-legislative’ and ‘quasi-judicial’ administrative agency in America was the Interstate Commerce Commission, founded in 1887 to control the railroads. It did not succeed in its objectives, of course, because as almost always happens, the commission ended up being controlled by the railroad industry. And in California, we must remember that the state was actually governed de facto by the Southern Pacific Railroad from 1869 t0 1910. The current constitution of 1879 was drafted originally to control the Southern Pacific; it failed in its objectives, succeeding only in imposing draconian [and now probably illegal] restrictions on Chinese immigrants and settlers. And in 1910, the railroad was successfully removed from power, but by the installation of reforms including the initiative and referendum system that we now know. I suspect that the airlines are now pretty much in the same position – and all the more so as the number of airlines continues to shrink.

Related: “Nonstop Flights Stop for Fuel” by Susan Carey and Andy Pasztor at

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