I’ve spent a lot of time in airports. I’ve slept in them, hung out in them and I even worked in one for a while. I was not an airport employee, but my company rented an office at the airport for some reason. As a frequent traveler, I’ve had the pleasure of being in a lot of airports in various places. I don’t really know a lot about them, but I have noticed a lot about them.
What interests me is not the airports themselves as they are mostly the same as far as the bigger concepts. When you think about it, an airport is just a big bus stop. No, what I find interesting in airports and the air travel system is it is a great example of how societies evolve solutions to near term problems. Those solutions often turn out to be long term liabilities and you clearly see that with our air travel system. In some cases, they are crippling malinvestments.
If you were going to design an air travel system for North America, you would not replicate what’s in place. It does not make any sense and it is expensive. Instead you would look to maximize geography and technology. For instance, there’s no great technological hurdles to super sonic passenger planes. The Concorde started flying in the 70’s. The issue has always been that airports can’t handle it. The noise and the runways were the problem, not the plane.
Imagine a few large airports on the East Coast built for massive super sonic passenger planes that could ferry 500 or more people to Europe in three hours. If you are in Kansas, you would take a domestic flight to the nearest international airport. But, when we started designing and building airports and the air traffic system, no one imagined super sonic air travel or the volume of air travel we now have.
That’s the thing you see all over the air travel system. We have layer upon layer of solutions to old problems that often make solving new problems more difficult or even impossible. It’s not that the people of 1950 were morons and designed bad airports. They just saw what they could see and did the best they could to unriddle those problems they knew about and could imagine. Within living memory, the idea of a Muslim from Saudi Arabia boarding a plane in the US was laughable.
Security is where you see the cul-de-sac. American airports were never designed to filter out Muslim lunatics, luggage bombs and other Muslim problems. When I left the Imperial Capital, I had a 5:00 AM flight, but I still needed 40 minutes to pass through security. Leaving America to return back home, security took over an hour, even though there were few people in line.
It’s why I like airports as an example to explain the impossibility of public policy in our current age. We have this massive overhang of evolved solutions that are largely useless for the current age. Food stamp programs are an obvious example. Even poor countries are full of fat people. There’s no need to be handing out food to the poor. But like all those zany rules at the airport, everything has a constituency, even if it has no purpose.
Compared to the labyrinth of rules in the welfare system, airports are simple. Yet, we cannot make small changes at airports to eliminate the cost of old solutions so that we can efficiently add new technology and solutions. Instead, it is just more and more layers. To solve the problem of Muslim fanatics, they bolted on new layers of stuff between you and the point the airport, which is to get on an airplane.
Airports also make good examples for explaining the law of unintended consequences. In the 1950’s, you could walk on a plane with your sidearm. Then we started getting hijackings in the 60’s so the “solution” was to ban firearms from people and carry-on luggage. That meant metal detectors and guards to look for guns on passengers. Before long, anything that could be used as a weapon was prohibited.
The “solution” for the terrorists was to put bombs in the luggage. Then the “solution” was to smuggle knives on the plane, knowing that everyone was unarmed on the plane. Air travel is a big complicated system that few truly understand well. Make some small changes at one end and what pops out the other end is often a surprise. No one in the 70’s imagined the Lockerbie bombing or 9/11.
Finally, if you have libertarian tendencies, a trip to the airport should disabuse you of those ideas. people do not self-organize very well. You have to have someone in charge who can say “no” to the percentage of humans who do not naturally follow the rules. You need someone to tell the self-absorbed d-bag that he has to check his gigantic backpack. It’s “ordered liberty” not just “liberty” and that means someone has to be giving orders. Otherwise, airports would be impossible.