Peer-to-peer air travel

"United 114 heavy, contact Minneapolis Center on 135.32."

"Thirty-five thirty-two, United 114."


"Minneapolis Center, United 114 heavy with you at four-one-thousand."

"United 114, maintain four-one-thousand."


"Four-one-zero, United 114."

"OK, everybody, make room for Chicago sequencing. United 114, what is your Mach number?"

"We're doing Mach .85, United 114."

"United 114, heading one-eight-zero, slow to HIISSSS GARBLE HISSSS advise if unable."

"United 114, try that again, Center?"


"Didn't catch that, once more please? United 114."

"United 114, heading one-eight-zero, slow to Mach point-eight-one."

"Heading one-eight-zero, slowing to eight-one, United 114."

"Roger 114, we'll advise when we can get you back on course."

I'm enroute from Los Angeles to Manchester, New Hampshire, by way of Chicago. It's a calm cloudless afternoon in July. Perfect weather for flying. The weather report isn't too good for the analog radio network that controls air traffic, though. Lots of collisions, back-offs, and retries. A stuck microphone. Interruptions from technicians who are testing routes through alternate transmitters to relieve the congestion. Variable quality of service depending on the diction, accent, and vocal timbre of the pilots and controllers who are talking. It's always sobering to consider that the mission-critical air traffic control system works this way.

Today, I'm going to have more time than usual to consider it. Chicago's unexplained sequencing delay costs us twenty-five minutes. By the time I extricate myself from the 747, I've got 15 minutes to get from C19 to B20. I sprint the distance, and arrive with almost 10 minutes to spare, but...the door's shut, I'm out of luck. Here's what the pilot should have said as I was leaving the 747:

"Thank you for flying with us today. We know you have a choice of carriers, and we do appreciate your choosing United. Have a great day in Chicago, or wherever your final destination may be. Except the poor bastard who is connecting to Manchester. Even though we're unloading, and they know you're sprinting to the gate, you won't get there in time to avoid having the door slammed in your face. For the next 10 minutes, you'll stand in line waiting to rebook on the next flight, which leaves four hours later, and while you wait, you'll contemplate your plane, sitting on the tarmac, with your seat empty, preparing for its on-time departure. When you complain, you'll be given an eight dollar meal voucher, which you'll use to buy a six dollar sandwich. They'll keep the change. Have a great day."

Well, at least it's not like the last time this happened, when I missed the final flight and had to stay the night. I'll just settle down and get some work done. Haven't been to O'Hare in a while, but I've heard there are access points everywhere.

Not. I finally ante up five bucks to use a Wayport kiosk to do some Googling, and learn that the access point in the American Airlines Admiral's Club can be reached from the concourse outside. Sounds plausible, and maybe that once was true, but not now.

It's not a red-letter day for air-travel-related networks. Now, I suppose it won't be too long before long Wi-Fi will be ubiquitous at airports. And the mission-critical air traffic communications system has to, at some point, become a digital network. What I'm really curious about, though, is whether the hub-and-spoke (or, we might say, client-server) architecture of air travel itself will ever give way to a decentralized peer-to-peer system.

There is a movement afoot to make this happen. Its literary champion is James Fallows, who has written articles and a book on the subject. Here's the idea. We have five thousand airports in this country. We route most of the traffic through a handful of congested hubs. Most of the airports -- the smaller ones -- move little or no passenger traffic.

An example of one of those small airports is the one in my home town of Keene, NH. It boasts the third longest runway in the state. Air Force One can land there, and does, every four years during the New Hampshire presidential primary. At one time, a string of commercial carriers -- subsidized by the government -- ran flights to La Guardia. I could wake up at 7AM in Keene, NH, be in midtown Manhattan by 9, and back home for dinner.

Fallows invites us to imagine a fleet of air taxis -- essentially winged SUVs, safe, ultra-reliable, highly-automated, super-efficient -- that redistribute some of the traffic away from our failing hubs to a network of smaller airports. If this is going to work, the air taxi itself, which companies like Eclipse Aviation are busily inventing, is only half the technological challenge. The other half lies in the information systems. You'd need to be able to aggregate demand in real-time, so that if two passengers in Keene, NH, two in Rutland, VT, and two in Albany NY are headed to LA (say, to Pomona's Ontario airport) on a given day, you can allocate an air taxi to make those three pickups and then fly direct to the destination. These air taxis would need to be able to steer clear of conventional air traffic, as well as each other.

It's Tom Swift and His Personal Flying Machine, made real with the help GPS, satellite-based networks, and leading-edge navigational computers. Or so Fallows likes to imagine. The cold-water argument is, of course, that it won't be economical even if the technical challenges are solved. What would be the point of creating a decentralized air travel system for a population that is itself not decentralized?

There's a chicken-and-egg situation. Cities always were and always will be the major economic and cultural organs. Some will prefer, as I do, to live in small towns away from the megalopolis, an option that has become much more viable in recent years. I used to pretend that I could work effectively from my small-town home office with a dial-up connection to the Net, but it wasn't really true. With broadband access, it really is true. I'm highly productive, wildly connected, and deeply engaged with many parts of the high-tech industry. Doing that while enjoying small-town quality of life is not something everyone will want. But it's certainly a choice that more would like to make than do, were distance from major airports not a factor.

I honestly don't know whether that obstacle will be torn down in my lifetime, and if so, whether peer-to-peer air travel is the way to do it. But I sure like the attitude of the Eclipse guys. Their catchphrase to describe the airline-industry naysayers' attitude is WCSYC -- that is, "We can't, so you can't." Maybe not, but if things turn out otherwise I know one thing for sure. Nobody is going to miss visiting O'Hare.

Postscript: Thanks to Mary Lu Wehmeir and Josh Lucas for correcting me about the location of Ontario airport: LA County, not Orange County. And to Phil Wolff who points out that " city outskirts might field their own micro-airports" -- as, of course, many already do.

Former URL: