Transportation and the national interest

On several interesting articles on transportation, with the usual rambling commentary.

First, “Two worlds — miles apart — exist on Delta flights” from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.  The gist:

On long international flights, some well-heeled passengers are willing to pay upward of $8,000 for a ticket that includes the creature comforts in business class: Those heading overseas in Delta’s BusinessElite seats may dine on pan-fried halibut with spicy tartar sauce, smashed fingerling potatoes, asparagus and wine pairings. On board may be free movies and HBO, a seat that reclines into a flat bed with a comforter and pillow from Westin Hotels and a luxury amenity kit. Upon arrival back in Atlanta, there’s a chance of getting picked up at the gate in a Porsche.

Let’s look at some specifics. For travel to London during this Fall’s shoulder season, typical coach on Delta from Atlanta is around $1200 R/T and Business Elite is about $4150. These are for 2-week stays, about what my wife and I are planning. Airlines have been tweaking their business models since deregulation in 1978, and frankly, if I could get people to pay $4,000 to arrive at the same time as someone paying $1,000, I’d do it, too.

I don’t know about you, though, but for my wife and me, we can have a lot of fun in London for the $5,800 difference.  We’re talking an 8-hour flight, by the way. I can stand (almost) anything for 8 hours. And what we’ll do is fly Economy Comfort for a negligible amount more. Note to Delta’s PR agency:  If you call some coach seats “Economy Comfort,” what does that say about the others?

And the WSJ is running a piece today on the resurgence of rail, mostly freight, but passenger is tagging along, too. “Boom Times on the Tracks: Rail Capacity, Spending Soar”:

Passenger rail is undergoing something of a renaissance, too. … Lately, the Obama administration has invested nearly $12 billion in passenger rail, according to the Department of Transportation, that has been used to fund 152 projects in 32 states.

I’m not sure what this means, but because passenger and freight trains use much of the same infrastructure, improvements in one should eventually benefit the other.

To see where transportation might be headed, here’s an anecdote from our part of the world (near Savannah). We’re going to Chicago on Saturday to see our new grandkid, our first. Coach from SAV would have been around $850, so we’re paying about $1200 to go first. Bumping rights are much better in first, for one thing, if you miss a connection. The alternative was to drive, about 2,000 miles. I don’t think so. Did I mention that I’m a grandparent — think advanced age.

Right now, bus or train would take way too long. But consider this simplified example. You can fly Delta next Wednesday from SAV to ATL for $285. Or you can take Greyhound for prices starting at $30. The Greyhound I took on that route a couple of years ago had leather seats and reasonably good Internet access. What about time?  Delta gate to gate is an hour 15 minutes. Let’s check a suitcase, so toss in an hour for check-in and security (SAV is really good, but I don’t take chances), and 45 minutes at ATL to get off the plane, go to baggage claim, and wait, and we’re looking at about 3 hours.

On Greyhound, you just give the driver your suitcase and you get it right back when you arrive. So we’re talking 4 hrs plus about 20 minutes for boarding. The upshot: you get to ATL about an hour and a half later, but you save $250. One caveat: Greyhound hasn’t figured out, yet, that people need a secure place to park cars at the terminal. This shouldn’t be a show-stopper, though. You’d either need to be dropped off or park in a garage downtown and take a 5-min cab ride to the terminal.

Finally, this just in:

Rail fans jostle to take photos of the Super Komachi bullet train as it pulls out of Tokyo Station, bound for northern Japan. A trip to its terminus at Akita Station costs 17,650 yen ($187) and takes 3 hours and 51 minutes.  The thing clips along at about 180 mph and could make the trip from Atlanta to Chicago in about the same time as the Tokyo – Akita run. Downtown to downtown, it would be quicker than flying. Even from Savannah, one could make the trip in only a couple of hours more than flying, pay a lot less, and ride in what appears to be a very comfortable car.

We can dream.

In this, as in so many other things, it might be nice to have back the couple of trillion we’ve dropped on the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

For more on transportation as a component of national security, check out Bill Lind’s columns over at The American Conservative. Bill also philosophizes on the state of the world in another column.

8 thoughts on “Transportation and the national interest

  1. Magnetic levitated designs can be even a lot faster Chet, as you may have heard. And running in rareified tunnels, the speed of sound could be easily attained. A network of those trains, between major centers in N. America, particularly if you could drive your own car onboard, and thus have your own transporation where you arrive, would be a paradigm shift in transpiration and the economy. Alas the odds of this ever happening, are nil.

    • Max —

      Thanks – you’re probably right.

      I’d be happy with 180 mph for the time being, which would connect up the country east of the Mississippi quite nicely. Throw in eastern Canada for a few dollars more.


      • Agreed Chet, but apparently the nation has $ 1.2T to spend on the likes of the
        F-35 over the next 20 years. What’s left, will go into the perpetual low intensity
        conflict industry, and really silly things like education, scocial security, etc,
        with not much left.

  2. Chet, your post today makes an important point about the high fares today for First Class: these are typical of a society with high inequality of income and wealth. In 1912, at the end of the Gilded Age, first class tickets on the Titanic were $50-100 thousand in today’s money.

    When one has billions of dollars, the cost of personal consumption — no matter how lavish — is a fraction of one’s income. It means nothing. At that level one need never ask the price about personal spending.

    Since distribution of wealth and income must total 100%, this is offset by a large underclass, and increasingly stressed middle class. We pay for the glorious life of the aristocracy, and can enjoy their life vicariously.

    Pointing this out often brings forth comments about the inevitability of revolution. Which history shows to be quite false. The proles and inner party usually tolerate these conditions. Revolutions against domestic rulers are noteworthy in history because they are quite rare.

    • Fabius,


      It seems to me that we may also be seeing the potlach syndrome in action, where I buy a Range Rover not because I’ll ever take an $80,000 car off road (although the Range Rover is certainly well capable of it), but just to advertise to one and all that I can afford one.

      On airlines that offer both first and business classes, it’s not unusual for first to cost 50% more than business and maybe 10 times the lowest price for coach. First class might be even more appealing if it cost $20,000. Singapore has taken a healthy step in this direction with suites on the lower deck of their A380s (“You can luxuriate in your very own private space in our largest ever armchair hand-stitched by master Italian craftsmen Poltrona Frau.”), but I’m sure they can do better. Titanic here we come!

      Why not fly your own jet? Some people do, or charter one. But there’s something satisfying about obsequious, fawning service, so I’m told.

      Your comments on revolution are well put. England in the late 1700s and early 1800s wasn’t especially more egalitarian than France, and conditions for the working classes may have even been worse (a fallout of being the first to industrialize). But no revolution.


      • “But no revolution.”

        On the other hand, no country has probably ever had 270 million (conservative estimate)
        fire arms in private hands before.

  3. I think it favors and assures total anarchy, if ever we cross the threshold.
    Keep on the way things are going, and there’s a fair chance we’ll find out.

    “You’ll get something you never bargained for, and only a lunatic wants”*

    * line delivered in Sydney Lumets Cold war era classic “Failsafe”

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