Drive vs. Fly

#Volvo, #C30

I LOVE TO TRAVEL, but I've always kind of hated to fly, and I've been noticing the reasons to hate flying haven't grown any less numerous lately. To the contrary.I always thought that when the fascists took over, the planes would run on time. Instead, they got worse.

My fellow travelers, you don't even have to get to London Heathrow's Terminal 5 disaster or the part of the story where hundreds of American Airlines jets were taken out of service recently, following a surprise decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to suddenly start enforcing its own aircraft-maintenance rules. A few pesky whistle-blower types revealed how the agency had been doing beleaguered carriers a favor by failing to enforce some of the more cumbersome maintenance routines, such as regularly inspecting airframes for stress-related cracks. In atonement for getting caught red-handed, the airlines (pressured by the FAA) left hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded when they grounded planes for inspection, forcing the cancellation of thousands of flights. Perhaps it was done for the agency's public-relations advantage, or perhaps it was for the public's own good. Or both. Or maybe neither. Either way, it didn't make me feel more like heading off into the wild blue yonder.

On the other hand, it did seem a natural progression for the airline industry and the overtaxed air-traffic system. Flights are delayed and canceled with shocking regularity. What's a few hundred thousand more disappointed travelers? I could fill an ample hard drive with stories I've heard firsthand of flights gone wrong. I've flown a fair amount, and I could cram a max-power iPod with my own reminiscences of waiting around airports.But I have one lesson to impart: unless you're traversing a war zone, no trip of less than 400 miles can be worth the hassle of flying anymore.

That's true even if driving takes more time and gas prices are soaring, because hours spent at airports aren't ordinary hours. Cumulatively, the acts of having to load and unload the car, climb on and off the airport parking bus, suffer the indignities of terminal lines and luggage lost, ungodly hours, bad food, and other people's germs are almost unbearable; this time could more happily be spent driving. And that's before you wait in line to get through security and are forced to remove jackets, belts, and shoes; mess with your computer; and once in a while surrender your toothpaste for destruction. It's all gotten so very old.

A few months back, I was invited to Charlotte, North Carolina, to appear on a panel at a radio convention. My copanelists, including the surprisingly durable Duran Duran front man, Simon LeBon, arrived by jet. I, too, briefly pondered flying the 650 miles from New York - it exceeded my 400-mile no-fly minimum. But I elected to drive. Had a great time, too, in the Volvo C30, which was an unexpected highway star, arriving in just less than ten hours. Another panelist, record executive CeCe McClendon, flew back to New York City the following afternoon. She reported by e-mail a harrowing trip of hurry-up-and-wait air travel. Door to door, it took her 11 hours, 15 minutes.

Face it, the XXL carbon footprint of the jet traveler makes Hummer driving look like an environmentally sensitive act. We know slowing down on the highway offers big fuel savings, as does cutting weight, but imagine what we'd save if we slowed from 530 mph and had 210,000 pounds (the weight of a loaded Boeing 757) to shed. With all we know about global warming and the exceptional effect of high-altitude jet exhaust on the ozone layer, you need a pretty good reason to be huffing petroleum products, jetliner-style. Of course, we all think we have one, but really, must anyone get to Walt Disney World in that big of a hurry?

And what if nobody went to Disney World in the first place? If the world's governments were serious about curbing CO2 emissions, they could, for a start, simply pay Disney a fair market price for the property, tear it down, and return the land to the ecologically beneficial swamp it once was. When you think of the millions of flights that won't be taken and cars that won't be rented, the multibillion-dollar price won't even seem unreasonable. How unfortunate, then, that the prevailing assumption is that you don't love your children if you won't take them to the Mouse's House, even if it means traveling thousands of miles and emptying your savings into the coffers of a few large corporations?

In recent years, Disney World has also cast itself as an ideal destination for seniors and - how and why? - romantic getaways. As I'll never tire of saying, if you're the sort who gets off on having breakfast with your lover and a sweaty, teenage evangelical dressed up as the six-foot-tall Donald Duck who's being paid to entertain you, please confine your behavior to the privacy of your own home.

Speaking of which, imagine if people vacationed closer to home. Or took longer to get where they're going. Too often, we forget the old aphorism - it's the journey, not the destination. We want travel always to be rapid, and so we've accepted this latest risk of modern air transport: that it won't be rapid and that driving might prove faster, after all.

Having attended AUTOMOBILE MAGAZINE's annual All-Stars test last fall, creative director Darin Johnson and I pried open our eyes in Zanesville, Ohio, at the butt crack of dawn to head west to meet my early flight to Newark at Port Columbus International Airport. Forty minutes on a plane and I'll almost be home, I remember thinking, oblivious to my impending doom. As Johnson smoothly motored off in a Saturn Astra, I was learning that my Continental flight was canceled (next one, nine hours later) due to weather back east. They "forgot" to notify me. Strangely, next door at the Northwest desk, their flight to Newark was leaving shortly, no weather problem to report. But no open seats, either.

Short story? I arrived home eleven hours late, having lain over in Detroit awhile. My mood was poor. If I had driven the 500 miles from Zanesville, I would have hopped out of my car refreshed, two hours earlier than the best that America's heavily subsidized and environment-defiling air-transport system had to offer. And the point of flying is what?Last month, I drove to San Francisco from Los Angeles. It took me about an hour and a half more than it takes to fly. That's assuming one factors in the trip to and from the airport and all the hoisting, dragging, and waiting, along with the proven-ineffective security check and assuming the biggest if of all - that the flight is on time.

No, they can't treat airplanes like they're old Ford Crown Victorias. There's no breakdown lane up there, six miles high. But that's only part of the problem nowadays. You don't need to be a weatherman to know that air travel blows. The friendly skies are overcrowded, and they're telling us something. And so is the fat guy sitting in the middle seat, but I can't hear him, because he's crushing me. Needless to say, I'm writing this on a plane. But next time, I'm driving. Watch me.

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