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Reach for the Skies
February 11, 2011
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  • By Greg Lindsay

    Published: January 31, 2011

    IN his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama talked about why things like high-speed rail and faster Internet connections were critical to American prosperity. But he left out the fastest, safest mode of transportation available: aviation.

    It may be hard to imagine flying as anything other than a nightmare of packed planes, crumbling airports, canceled flights and increasingly invasive security. But these are all signs of how far our system has fallen. In fact, of all the transportation options available, aviation is the one with the greatest potential to improve the economy and Americans’ well-being – though it will take major new investments to get there.

    From 1975 to 2005, while global gross domestic product rose 154 percent and world trade grew 355 percent, the value of air cargo climbed 1,395 percent. Today, more than one-third of all goods by value, some $3 trillion, is carried in the bellies of planes. These goods are the high-tech, high-value products that Americans want to make – clean-energy technology, electronics and biomedical devices – and they are key to the president’s goals of doubling exports and revitalizing our economy.

    What’s more, air travel remains ever more vital to American workers. The transportation analysts Kenneth Button and Roger Stough found that the presence of an airline hub in a city increased the local high-tech work force by an average of 12,000. Another study concluded that each flight from Los Angeles to Europe or Asia created 3,126 jobs, totaling $156 million in wages.

    True, there’s always telecommuting. But high-speed Internet hasn’t diminished the need for highly skilled workers to fly, because meeting face-to-face matters more than ever when the products are ideas and the employees are spread across international borders.

    Of course, some analysts predict that a return to $140-a-barrel oil would put a crimp on the airline industry, if not ground it altogether. But aviation growth doesn’t correlate to rising oil prices. Rather, it’s about expanding economies: oil prices have tripled in nominal terms since the start of the Iraq war, yet the annual number of passengers worldwide has risen 43 percent since 2003. In the global economy, speed trumps costs.

    The problem is that aviation in America is slowing down. For decades, even as demand grew, we failed to expand runways, upgrade technology and build larger terminals. New York’s three airports, which suffer some of the worst delays in the country, cost travelers $1.7 billion annually in lost time alone. Similar stories abound across the country.

    America may not see the advantage to such investments, but China and India do. Both are experiencing annual aviation growth rates as high as 20 percent as their growing middle classes take to the skies. And they are building hundreds of new airports to connect their once-obscure, now-booming cities to each other and their neighbors, not to us.

    Indeed, the rest of the world is interacting via air like never before. The number of visitors to China from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America quintupled from 2000 to 2007; not coincidentally, China’s exports to the Arab world soared to $60 billion from $6 billion. America is, in other words, getting cut out.

    We need to do three things to improve air travel and forge new links overseas.

    The first step is to upgrade our air-traffic-control system, which dates back to the 1930s. The government must finally switch from radar to the G.P.S.-based system known as NextGen, which lets planes fly via satellite signal instead of following radar beacons, saving time and fuel, which in turn increases airport capacity.

    According to Alaska Airlines, which demonstrated the technology last year at its Seattle hub, a G.P.S.-enabled system could save 2.1 million gallons of fuel at an airport annually and cut carbon emissions by 35 percent.

    We also need to treat our airports as strategic federal investments, rather than local spending efforts. O’Hare International Airport, for decades the largest in the world, is a primary reason that today Chicago has a higher G.D.P. than South Africa. But O’Hare, like many American airports, desperately needs more and longer runways. Unfortunately, there is not enough federal commitment to ensure they are built, leading to time-consuming political and legal battles. Earlier this month United and American Airlines sued Chicago to stop a $3.4 billion expansion at O’Hare, fearful they would be stuck with some of the bill.

    So far, though, we’ve made only tentative steps in the right direction. Last fall President Obama pledged to repair 150 miles of runways around the country. He must follow through on that, but he must also ensure that aviation receives its fair share from the proposed national investment bank.

    Finally, to help protect airlines from oil price spikes (and potentially crushing carbon taxes later on), we need to make investments in high-grade biofuels. The technology exists – a California company called Solazyme has already sold jet fuel refined from algae to the Navy – but low-cost, high-volume production does not. As in other areas of green technology, federal involvement is critical to get the market moving.

    President Obama is absolutely correct when he says that exports are vital to American prosperity. But without significant new investments, the exports of the future – from innovative ideas to high-end electronics – will be left sitting at the departure gate.

    Greg Lindsay is a co-author of the forthcoming “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.”

    NEW YORK TIMES2011-01-31false