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The end of modern air travel, Slow Travel and airships

When I’m producing a story, I often lose perspective of the humanness of the conversation and the people involved and simply think about the pieces that will make up an edited piece. Sadly, I think in soundbites. And I’m always waiting for what an early mentor of mine used to call “golden bites”, those 15-20 second comments that can drive a documentary.

But there are moments when a soundbite causes you to snap out of producer mode. It happened to me when interviewing a 12-year-old “prostitute” years ago in an Atlanta detention center when she told me she’d entered the business because she liked the wigs the pimp had offered her. And more recently, the words of a rather serious and unemotive engineer for the the Vancouver Fuel Cell Vehicle Program made me rethink the way I view air travel.

It was an atypically hot Canadian summer day and Mark Rossetto was just completing a test drive with my husband Nico and explaining how “eventually one day we will run out of fossil fuels” and how hydrogen fuel cell cars powered by wind and solar energy could provide a replacement for the internal combustion engine.

I kept rolling as they got out of the car and Nico asked that burning question for critics of the technology: “So you think it will eventually become affordable to buy a hydrogen car?”

Mark: “That is the goal. It just might cost more than it does today to operate things such as personal vehicles.” 

And then he added something that I hadn’t heard before, “There is talk that one day because of the shortage of things like fossil fuel, the average consumer will not be able to fly again in the future. Just because of the amount of fuel that airplanes take and the limited resources we have on this earth. That isn’t an opinion shared by everybody, but there are still a lot of unknowns so the future will tell.”

A world without airplanes is like a world without…

It was like hearing that the world was running out of milk. I’d grown up with air travel. My father worked in Germany for the first few years of my life so my first plane ride was for our move back to the U.S. at age two. After that as our family grew from five to eight, plane travel became rare, but once I began college in Boston, the cross country journey from home in California to school became necessary.

One summer break, I returned to Europe for the first time since childhood to become yet another backpacker collecting passport stamps and sleeping on trains and in cheap hostels in an effort to expand my knowledge of the world.

My younger sister and I met a lot of like-minded Americans on the same voyage of discovery, but we also met a Lebanese bodyguard who showed us his version of Paris (including the seediness of the Bois de Boulogne, and Rue Saint-Denis), East Germans who picked us up while hitchhiking to Berlin who communicated with us by sign language (one wore an American flag on his shirt and pointed and smiled proudly… this was 1990 and the 1st summer after the wall fell), a Hungarian teen who helped us translate daily life in Budapest (thanks to him we avoided ordering fried fat for dinner one night), and lots of very articulate and politically aware European teens (I remember commenting to my sister that I thought the boys on that side of the Atlantic were more interesting, though I never expected one day to marry one).

It’s not that I had never acknowledged the huge carbon footprint of flying (see my post Frequent flier guilt), but the idea that flying could cease to exist for the “average consumer” seemed so final and so life-, and world-, changing.

If flying becomes upper class only

Perhaps it’s an extreme idea, but when we do run out of fossil fuels if we begin to rely more on renewables, it doesn’t sound so farfetched that airplanes, and their lack of an electric option, would become old tech.

Last summer as oil prices reached a peak, I read an article in the New Republic that echoed Mark’s soundbite. “Mass aviation could be coming to an end… If that happened, the result would mean more than just the end of easy weekend jaunts to Bermuda or annual Christmas visits home. It could mean major shifts in the economy, changes in immigration patterns across the world, and perhaps even a remapping of the planet as we know it.”

Author Bradford Plumer argues our landscapes will change if aviation becomes transport for just the rich: tourist resorts like Orlando and Vegas could become depressed resort towns as we begin to vacation close to home; small towns across the country could lose air service; Alaskans, “the flyingest people under the American flag”, could become confined in isolated towns during winters with frozen roads; and we’ll take more staycations (the 30% drop in air travel after 9/11 drove up ticket sales for local attractions like the Texas State Fair and the Bronx Zoo).

And most frightening to me: “many people may think twice about relocating a flight away from family members”. He uses a transnational mobility expert to explain what any ex-pat could confirm: “If people are separated for longer, don’t see each other as often, it’s going to hurt.”

I know that hurt. Coming from a family that is extremely close emotionally, but separated physically by plane flights for every one of the 8 of us (well, my parents are still together so 7 different states/countries), I have developed an irrational nostalgia for our family togetherness.

Making vacations count

A couple years ago, upon learning the then-startling fact, that a roundtrip flight from London to Perth, Australia was about equal to the annual carbon footprint of the average Brit (that includes all the driving, heating/cooling, embodied energy in food, clothes, etc.), I was shamed into attempting to limit my then-frequent transatlantic commutes. I vowed to travel less often home to the U.S. from Barcelona and instead to stay longer with each trip.

Since my blogged-upon pledge, I have returned home 3 times in 2 years (with 1 trip to, um, Australia, for my sister’s wedding celebration) for trips of 5-8 weeks at a time. It’s meant adjusting to going home to practically live with my parents again, not such a tough transition for me, but for my husband, well, I’m not sure any spouse willingly signs up for so much life with the in-laws.

On our first of those visits to the U.S., I tried to maximize family time by spending a month in Seattle housesitting down the street from my sister Jennifer. I felt a need to reconnect with my childhood “twin” (we’re only 18 months apart and we looked alike as kids and did almost everything together). I could feel less guilty about adding mileage to the trip as we used my parents Prius to get to drive to Washington and getting back the car was packed with Nico, myself, our daughter and my parents.

The same 5 of us crawled into the same hybrid during our return trip to California this past summer for a journey to Santa Barbara for a good friend’s wedding (where I saw my North Carolina-based sister Rebecca), to Sun Valley, Idaho (where I saw my then-itinerant brother Tyson) from which Nico took off for enviropreneur camp in Montana and the rest of us left for Seattle for another visit with Jennifer.

During this winter’s visit to California for 5 weeks, I had high hopes for seeing more of my siblings, but in the end I didn’t make the extra plane flights to Seattle nor to North Carolina nor New York (where my brother, Colton, is based). Good for my eco-footprint, but disappointing for me personally.

Substituting sky miles for skype

My inability to visit much family while in the U.S. got me obsessing about how there’s no perfect solution to our reliance on air travel, not when we live in a culture that values moving cities or states as a rite of passage and as an effective means to advance a career. How, when you’re all grown up and career doesn’t drive your life anymore, do you relocate so as not to be a flight away from family members? Especially when, like for my family, there is no familial hometown anymore and instead lots of adopted towns on 3 continents and in 4 states.

I spent many hours on the phone this trip scheming with my siblings how we could build momentum so as to end up in the same city one day. Colton, the one who created the “family compound” concept years ago as a semi-humorous means to assure we all lived close to each other one day- this involved mom and dad buying a Kennedy-type compound somewhere and inspired jokes about whose respective boyfriends and girlfriends were “compound-worthy”-, thinks that someone needs to start first by moving back to San Francisco.

The more we all talked, the more I began to think it is not easy to re-root your life. Nico and I hope to do so one day, but he’s less tied to family here and our jobs are so mobile. But the rest of my siblings have other entanglements: Colton has his wife’s close-knit Toronto-based family as a pull; all of my Australia-based sister Emily’s husband’s 7 siblings, as well as parents, live in Sydney; Rebecca’s fiance has worked for decades as the head tennis coach at the University of North Carolina and his aging mother lives relatively close in South Carolina; and Tyson’s fiance would love to return home to Melbourne (Australia) to be close to all the rest of her family and close friends.

With every phone call, I felt a bit more hopeless that we’d all ever live close to each other again. But with each call as we chatted about where we hoped to live and how we hoped to live and how we were living now, I also began to realize that our relationships hold up well without being face-to-face.

In fact, I’m beginning to think sometimes things are richer without involving that most superficial of senses. Without being able to see each other, the conversations somehow seem richer, more focused, more interesting. With a phone call or email, there are no tv series (on my last visit to Seattle my sister and I watched all 23 hours of Brothers & Sisters in 3 nights), board games, sports or kids. Not that I don’t enjoy bonding over all that, but some of my best conversations about life, love and politics that I’ve had with family members have happened when those distractions have been eliminated.

Modern Hindenburgs and transatlantic solar crossings

Of course, I’m not ready to give up seeing family ever, but perhaps there are alternatives to the jet for crossing oceans. This year, the “sun21” catamaran became the fastest completely solar-powered boat to cross the Atlantic, covering about 7000 sea miles in 29 days. Or perhaps it will involve a hybrid that includes wind power, like the commercial ship Beluga SkySails that used a sail for its maiden voyage to cut fuel usage and carbon emissions by 30%.

Or for something a bit faster, I’ve heard a lot of talk lately of “airships“, or modern dirigibles. They’re no Hindenburgs, but safe, modern helium-powered blimps. Even the French postal service is looking into using them for trips between France and their territories in the Caribbean.

Airships are much more fuel efficient than jumbo jets, but they would take about 40 hours to make the transatlantic journey and since they carry less people, will cost considerably more (The California-based Airship Ventures Zeppelin charges each of their 12 passengers $500 for an hour of sightseeing).

Hopefully costs would come down if more of us switched to blimps and solar ships for getting around. But the issue of more time on the road isn’t an insurmountable problem for me.

I like the idea of Slow Travel. Even if it takes two days instead of 8 hours, I look forward to floating home from Spain someday in a dirigible. Instead of stressing about long security lines or a simple hour or two flight delay, we can get back to enjoying the adventure of travel once again.