L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 76, June 12, 2000
Why Don't We Fly?
Not long ago, I was driving down a highway paid for by robbing innocent taxpayers at the gasoline pump, passing various highway signs posted by government officials paid by the further theft of taxpayer money at every cash register in the state, and examining numerous features of my vehicle whose interior design and engine configuration reflected the whims of other government officials whose pay was extracted from the paychecks of every taxpayer in the nation. I noticed a sign on my dashboard control console near the fuel gauge telling me that only unleaded fuel should be put in the gas tank, due to a government regulation. The steering wheel was comfortably padded, because yet other government officials felt I shouldn't hurt my head in an accident. As I leaned forward to see the control console over the bulky airbag compartment filling the center of the steering wheel, I was restrained by the automatic shoulder harness system. As it actively restrained my movement with a tensioning mechanism, I was amused to recall that it was labelled a "passive restraint."
Here I was in a vehicle designed somewhat more in Washington, DC than in Detroit, Michigan stuck in traffic which was constrained by a highway designed in Austin, Texas while a bus passed by in a special lane designed by the county government (and paid for by a special sales tax surcharge) when I began to think: why don't I fly?
"Really," it struck me at just that moment, "Why do we stick to the surface when just 100 feet up there is clear air in every direction and absolutely no traffic?" So I began to think about what prevented me from purchasing a vehicle that would simply take me from my home through the air to my every destination.
If I were designing the highway system in this country, it would mostly consist of grass and trees. Most of the vehicles would move through the air most of the time. Free to move in three dimensions, there would be far fewer accidents. No longer would traffic pile up in a line, unable to move left or right. Instead, with fully six directions in which to move, traffic would be impressively hard to accumulate.
Using satellites to provide navigation fixes in all three dimensions, traffic "control" would be simple. A Princeton physicist, Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill came up with a practical, patented method for satellite facilitated air navigation in the 1970s. Curiously, the government operated system providing air traffic control around America's airports remains antiquated, relying on ground based radar which greatly limits its effectiveness.
Current technology offers many techniques for vertical takeoff and landing, as well as a variety of short takeoff and landing systems. Indeed, much of this technology dates to the 1960s. Moreover, lighter-than-air systems dating to the Nineteenth Century allow for highly controlled movement.
Clearly a system of personal transportation by air makes a great deal of sense. It is safer to travel by air than on the surface of the planet, due in no small measure to being able to move in three dimensions rather than two as well as the obvious benefits of a greater volume of space which lessens the likelihood of two vehicles needing to occupy the same location at one time. Indeed, the greatest hazards to aircraft occur at takeoff and landing, and these are exacerbated by the large number of vehicles that take off and land at government operated landing fields or "airports." If more landing fields were available (for example, one in every back yard), the traffic would be less dense and safety would be enhanced.
The technology clearly exists for small private aircraft of a variety of configurations which can takeoff on short stretches of pavement, as well as many types which rise straight up including helicopters, tilt-rotor aircraft, ducted fan jet aircraft, and lighter-than-air craft.
Such an approach to individual and family travel is also consistent with good economics. Imagine the savings! Air presents much less drag than any road surface, lowering fuel costs and reducing air pollution. Modern small aircraft have fewer systems than modern automobiles, though many of the "features" of today's cars may be attributed to government interference. Nevertheless, simpler vehicles produced in the same number should be less costly. What's more, air vehicles require less pavement, giving landowners the chance to use their property for homes, parks, wild areas, agriculture, or a host of other purposes. Finally, air travel is much faster, both because it is more direct and because less drag means more fuel can be used to increase speed rather than overcome friction with the ground.
So what is stopping us? Mostly, government interference. Many of the vehicles designed to operate as "air cars" cannot be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) under their current guidelines. Other vehicles which need no licensing, so-called "ultralight" aircraft may not be flow over populated areas, making their use as commuter vehicles unavailable.
Regulations of all kinds limit the advance of aircraft development. For example, supersonic transport aircraft are prevented from operating over the US by law. Private airport operators must meet many government criteria, and are burdened with taxes they must collect for the government as well as property taxes. Public airports provide subsidized competition, reducing the likelihood of successful private airport development.
Whenever government interferes in the marketplace, you can be sure that some private interests are better served by the way things are. So who benefits from the current system?
The makers of automobiles and the contractors who build roads and highways certainly benefit. These companies don't shirk from holding their hands out for government support when they need it, even though they frequently object when the government that buys vehicles from them under contract, pays for the concrete they cast, limits access to their markets by domestic and foreign competitors, and guarantees their loans then has the audacity to impose standards and regulations upon them.
Curiously, many of the manufacturers of aircraft are also comfortable with the present situation, especially those who produce the larger transport aircraft. These companies do significant business as NASA and Defense contractors, get significant protection from foreign competition, and are able to work their own way through the maze of Federal regulations. Regulations tend to be a barrier to entry in the marketplace, reducing the chances for any new competitor, especially one with an innovative solution.
As consumers of transportation products and services, we each lose a great deal. We lose friends and relatives in traffic accidents which need not occur. We lose a portion of our earnings to excess fuel costs. We lose a part of our environment to steel bridges and sixteen lane freeways. We lose a part of every day waiting in traffic when freedom is just a few dozen feet above our heads.
Those who fly at the controls of aircraft regularly know of an experience rarely appreciated by those who guide surface vehicles and only rarely fly as passengers. There is a tremendous beauty to the Earth best appreciated from great altitude. There is a joy to flying past the clouds, soaring above the ground, powering through the air. These aesthetic benefits are also denied to consumers who are denied the choice of personal air transportation.
If government regulations on aircraft design, production, and operation were eliminated, would the market demand faster, cheaper, more convenient personal air vehicles? Would entrepreneurs rise to the challenge and be able to provide vehicles which leave the average driveway or neighborhood street, power through the air, and land atop a parking garage downtown minutes later?
Perhaps not. Market forces may determine an outcome different from my desires. Somehow, I doubt it. For thousands of years, men have yearned to fly, and created legends such as that of Daedalus and Icarus to fulfill those dreams. For hundreds of years, since 1783, we have known how to fly. For those two centuries and more, we have been constantly improving our flight technology, touching the Moon and reaching for the stars.
Such high achievers won't be stuck in traffic jams forever.