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.

11 thoughts on “Airports

  1. With all due respect, your take on the commercial failure of the Concorde is not correct. The Concorde does not require special runways or facilities. In general, it can take off and land on a standard jet runway of sufficient length for a 747.

    The Concorde failed because supersonic air travel consumes an incredible amount of fuel. The Concorde carried approximately 100 passengers and burns approximately 4800 gallons/hour at cruising speed of Mach 2. That’s 48 gallons/hour/passenger. A Boeing 737 carries between 110 and 150 passenger (depending upon configuration) and burns approximately 850 gallons per hour at cruising speed of approximately Mach 0.7. If you assume an average of 125 passenger capacity that’s 6.8 gallons/hour/passenger.

    So the Concord consumes approximately 7X the amount of fuel to travel at approximately 3X the cruising speed of a Boeing 737. The marginal economics of the Concorde made no sense except in the niche market of wealthy travelers for whom it made sense to pay $5000-$10000 for a one-way ticket from Paris to New York in order to save a few hours of air time, and they all defected to NetJets.

    Otherwise an excellent article.

    • No doubt cost was the big issue. I was looking at the physics of it. The plane was limited to certain airports due to runways and sound issues. At least that’s what we always heard in the States. My point was simply that we built the airports for the planes we had at the time. If someone comes up with a plane tomorrow that can carry a 1,000 people over the ocean in an hour, but it needs a three mile runway to take off and land, the plane never gets built, even if it runs on sunshine and emits fairy dust.

  2. Air travel will be the downfall of the West. It just makes it too easy for “them” to get “here”. Within living memory, the masses would have had to travel for weeks by ship to get over to this side of the pond or to Australia. Now there are daily non-stop flights from pretty much everywhere and anywhere in the third world to the West.

  3. in 1995 it was known that terrorists were planning to fly airplanes into buildings.

    bolinka plot

    “The Bojinka plot (Arabic: بجنكة‎; Tagalog: Oplan Bojinka) was a planned large-scale three-phase attack by Islamists Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to occur in January 1995. The attack was to include the assassination of Pope John Paul II, the bombing of 11 airliners in flight from Asia to the United States[1] (which would kill approximately 4,000 passengers and shut down air travel around the world), and the crashing of a plane into the headquarters of the CIA in Fairfax County, Virginia.[2]”

  4. Airline bombings have become a thing of the past.

    In the past 25 years there have been none of note. They seem to have gone out of vogue with the terrorists and nut-bags. Maybe an 80s thing?

    That being said, without airline crashes, there would be zero noteworthy events so far this century.

  5. The story goes (as stories will) that in the 80s someone at the upper echelons of US government called in several fiction writers and asked them to think of the things in warfare that they couldn’t imagine. Being fiction writers their imaginations were less fettered, but I heard that at least one of the authors came up with the idea of commercial airline planes being flown into buildings.

    I have no idea if this thought impressed anyone important, but we know what was to happen fifteen years or so later. Truth may be stranger than fiction but fiction has the advantage of looking for the unlikely first.

    Anyway, the one thing we can say is that airports were designed at a time when air travel was for the wealthy and, from that, intended for the people who wanted the system they enjoyed to carry on being enjoyable. Once air travel was opened up to the rank-and-file it began to attract the rank-and-vile who had dreams of ending everything they imagined they didn’t like. The cheap-travellers certainly didn’t want things to continue as they were.

    With this cheaper travel came the people who had no clue about air travel. I recall a story of an Air India flight that blew up in mid air years ago because apparently someone, being hungry, did what anyone would do and lit a portable gas stove ‘out of the way’ by one of the emergency doors to cook a meal.

    Once you allow the rabble to take control of the city gates then they tend to do things like let anyone in for any number of reasons that defy logic. Same with airlines and airports: the power to control and limit was handed to peasants who equally had no interest in the welfare of the system that employed them.

    Airports, and with it airport security, became infested with people whose idea of a good time was trying to put their hands down the front of someone’s trousers while, under the guise of appearing to be ‘fair’ they waved through people (men or women, we’d never know) wearing burkas to board.

    I sometimes say that if you think about it, you have to be pretty amazed at aircraft in that they are made of metal but can fly. Even more astonishing is the idea that anyone can get on one whatever their motives, and beyond belief is the idea that little old (white) ladies boarding a plane to fly to see their grandchildren are some sort of potential danger.

    Weird, this world of ours.

  6. “We have this massive overhang of evolved solutions that are largely useless for the current age.”

    By your examples, the current age is composed of idiotic governmental demands that cripple the evolved solutions. The problem, then, isn’t the air traffic solutions that evolved until the 1960s, but command-and-control solutions imposed since then.

    I’m not sure I want airports streamlined to make fascist control easier.

  7. Ordered liberty, indeed. Maximum liberty (or much of any at all, really) isn’t possible within a nation’s borders without maximum scrutiny and discrimination *at* the borders.

  8. This is an excellent post, but you should realise that it directly contradicts the two previous Texas posts.

    Population growth = more authoritarian solutions = fascism after a certain point.

    This is something that the natalist/ open borders right can’t address and applies to air travel. We can’t have the pre-1970s air travel without the pre-1970s population or making the thing a super-luxury good.

  9. To your last paragraph, many of the problems of the world seem to be the result of the attitude that “the rules apply to everyone else, but not to me!”

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