on June 19, 2001
This is a fascinating read of how we descended into airline hell and how we may be able to dig our way out of it. The solutions grow out of great American entrepreneurship that have created nifty, new, affordable small planes; NASA's quiet research in navigation systems; and a realistic scenario for using the thousands of small airports around the country to support an air taxi system.
The book is chock-a-block full of hard news that should replace the dull, familiar tag lines we always hear at the end of TV news reports on air traveller's nightmares, lines like "It'll only get worse before it gets better," or "Only this summer's busy travel days will tell.." Instead, we could soon be hearing about the new travel-on-demand systems that could take you, affordably, from Omaha to El Paso without passing through busy, congested DFW. Or we could be seeing demos of the parachute drop of the new little Cirrus plane (from the book jacket) that safely delivers passengers from the ill-fated JFK, Jr.-type scenario.
Fallows is a small-plane pilot himself, and his passion for flying drives this book. It's easy-to-read and even funny. It dispels a lot of myths and explains away a lot of primal fears about stepping into small planes. It will fit right into your carry-on on your next trip. Buy it and pack it; you'll have lots of time to read it.
on July 22, 2001
James Fallows says his new book "Free Flight" is about how to solve air travel gridlock with technically advanced general aviation airplanes (thus the lengthy subtitle "From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel"). Nonsense. "Free Flight" is a chronicle of the author's personal fascination with all things aviation. Fallows spends most of the book detailing his personal aviation experiences, including his flying lessons, his spiffy new airplane, his flying buddies, et al. This is good fun for pilots, especially GA pilots, but I doubt there is much use or appeal to a broader audience.
To the extent that the book spends much time at all on the topic of modern air travel, many of the author's contentions seem outright silly. Fallows devotes dozens of pages (and the book's cover) to the Cirrus SR20 in the belief that it will have a major impact on the future of air travel. Granted, the Cirrus is a fantastic aircraft, but it designed for GA needs and simply not suitable for commercial operation (total number of SR20s in use by commercial carriers: ZERO). True, a new breed of airplanes are reinventing air travel, but these "regional" aircraft are from companies such as Bombardier and Embraer, which sell hundreds of airplanes to fast-growing carriers like SkyWest and Mesaba. Fallows simply never establishes his main point, that GA will have a leading role in improving air travel, and he ignores altogether the many new companies and aircraft that are slowly improving what the author calls "Airline Hell".
As a pilot and aviation enthusiast I found several enjoyable moments in "Free Flight". However, I suspect the broader audience the author seeks will find little in the way of contributions to the air travel discussion, and may simply be left wondering how the normally excellent James Fallows could have produced such a confusing mess.
on August 11, 2001
In James Fallows "free flight" he divides us into two categories when it comes to our interest in flying and planes. Enthusiast are those people, mostly males, that love the planes, the process of flying, the technology, and the lore of aviation. I trust all pilots are enthusiasts. The rest of us are civilians when it comes to planes and flying. I certainly am only a civilian. I have come to loath the hub and spoke commercial aviation system that has developed in this country. Fallows describes several things that are occurring that should modernize the air transportation system for a great many of us. I found myself excited about these new developments. I even can cite the different planes that will make air travel safe, fun, and convenient again. The Cirrus SR-20 with its parachute appears to be a great acheivement. Also the Eclipse jets are something I can not wait to see and eventually fly in. This book should be read by all of us who have ever flown. Also, city planners who have anything to do with transportation systems in their towns will find this book most interesting. Fallows has convinced me that the disruptive technology is here for the aviation industry. As the disruption occurs I will now understand why it is happening.
on September 9, 2001
I was really excited about this book: I'm a serious aviation enthusiast and an admirer of James Fallows' writing over the past several years.
In *Free Flight* Fallows reveals himself to be an enthusiastic promoter of general aviation. Fallows begins by helping readers unfamiliar with small airplanes understand a little bit about the strange world of private pilots and their buzzy little machines. He paints a clear picture of the world of aviation enthusiasts--and what it potentially has to offer to the general public.
The book is devoted primarily to the topic of research and development that has been going on since the early 90s aimed at making small airplanes safer and more accessible to the general population.
The book closely examines two new aircraft manufacturers at the forefront of these developments (Cirrus Design and Eclipse Aviation) as well as some of the visionaries within NASA and other government agencies who have been promoting a concept of safe, affordable travel between secondary airports that skirts the congestion and delays of today's hub-spoke airline system. Finally, Fallows chronicles a trip of his own in one of these advanced small airplanes.
Fallows skillfully avoids the worst of the aviation technical jargon, and brings the subject to life through portraits of some of the very interesting people at work in the field.
For all of his cheerleading for the future of accessible general aviation Fallows also gives a fairly realistic assessment of the risks to this vision, though he devotes far less ink to the negative side of his subject.
Whether you're an aviation enthusiast, private pilot, or just a frustrated airline passenger *Free Flight* has much to offer. Let's hope that the future is as bright as Fallows suggests it can be.
on June 23, 2001
I first came across James Fallows's ideas about flying in an Atlantic Monthly piece and was fascinated in this new book with his ideas about the future of air travel. The concept of personal air taxis is apparently not farfetched at all. And the inconvenience we all endure by traveling hub-and-spoke through several dozen airports is unnecessary - a real revelation - as he points out that 6000 other airports have over 90% of their capacity unused.
The book pokes holes in so many of the current arguments and proposed solutions for our air transport mess while highlighting the role of NASA - not the FAA or Boeing - as creative promoters of the future of sub-satellite transportation - something I'd never realized.
The book makes me want to do what he did - learn to fly, get a plane and escape from commercial airline chaos - into my own skies that are friendlier than theirs.
Buy it, read it and be amazed.
I bought this book for a very practical reason. In the aftermath of 9-11 I was thinking about moving to Smith Mountain Lake, four hours drive to the South of Washington, D.C., and I wanted a sense of whether "general aviation" might provide me with a once a week "commuter solution" for getting back up to the National Capitol Area.
The book is fully satisfactory. While some might complain that it tells a personal story, I found this perfectly useful as a means of understanding both the pros and cons of airline travel through "hubs" that impose time loss on the passengers for the convenience of the commercial airline companies, versus "general aviation" which allows point to point travel.
Most interesting to me was learning that with the hubs and the problems inherent in airline travel today, the average speed for any trip by air can be just about the same as the average speed if going by car--60 miles per hour.
I ended this book with three understandings that more than warranted its purchase:
1) I, a non-pilot, could easily learn to fly and it would not only be worth my while, but great fun as well.
2) General aviation, while not as robust as it could be, is alive and well in America, and new solutions (including an airplane that comes with its own parachute, lowering the entire plane, with passengers, in the event of an engine failure) are there.
3) NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Agency) does a lot more than space flight--I was quite astonished to find that they are heavily engaged in thinking about general aviation solutions, and generally optemistic that in an era when time is the most precious commodity, and general aviation may be a solution for many businessmen as well as traveling families that shy away from the nightmare of getting kids through airports.
Bottom line: a great read, a great buy, and a vision into the future that is practical and fun.
on September 23, 2001
James Fallows' superb book must be totally reevaluated after the terrorists attacks of September 11. Previous to that horrifying date, some may have wrongly concluded that Fallows was merely presenting another opportunity for the affluent Yuppie class to indulge in conspicuous consumption. Purchasing a small airplane still remains a luxury affordable by perhaps less than 2% of the general population. The small plane business model could compete against standard air travel pricing, but not the very inexpensive tickets that permit the very poor to fly. Our current national crisis, however, compels Americans to seriously look at all of their viable travel alternatives.
Small planes have become a more practical and less risky way to move around the country. This is especially true for flights under 500 miles. Airport security measures will significantly increase traveling time. A smaller plane has fewer passengers, and therefore a thorough security check should at least theoretically take only a few minutes. Companies may also feel more comfortable knowing that their top executives are not on board a larger airliner. Internet guru Esther Dyson said that "this book makes you want to go out and put down a deposit on one of the new aircraft." I suspect that Dyson originally made this remark dwelling only upon the aspect of added convenience. My gut impression is Ms. Dyson today thinks that she would be safer sitting behind the controls of her own airplane.
The smaller fuel tanks of the these airplanes limit their attractiveness to those embracing the terrorist mindset. These planes simply cannot be used as something akin to a cruise missile to destroy large buildings and major military targets. Also, pilots are well aware that they will be shot down if they deviate away from their assigned travel route. The U.S. Air Force is essentially being told to shoot first, and ask questions later! The distinguished journalist James Fallows had no idea that this book would be released only a few months before America went to war. We should be thankful that Mr. Fallows has performed this valuable service. "Free Flight" easily earns a five star recommendation.
on August 19, 2001
Set against the authors account of an enjoyable flight across the states in his Cirrus SR20 private plane, FREE FLIGHT has captured the imagination of general aviation pilots by offering a vision of what we dream of - the dawning of a new age in aviation with new technologies and designs bringing about better, more comfortable, and safer private planes. The book appeals to a broader audience than the thousands of us that are private pilots and small plane aficionados; it is for the millions of us who have, at some time, experienced "airline hell." We know this purgatory: long commutes to airports, endless check-in lines, frequent delays at the terminal or waiting on the taxiways. The author asks "how can a system be so technically advanced and admirable, yet lead to results so unpleasant for everyone?" The reason is the hub-and-spoke system operated by commercial airlines with the large carriers delivering passengers to big-city terminals and smaller commuter airlines serving the spoke routes to smaller cities. The book reveals that for many years now air traffic has grown nearly twice as fast as the economy, yet at the same time the large carriers have reduced the number of cities they serve, from over 450 in the late 1970's to 268 in 1998. The solution, the author says, is with "air-taxis" and affordable private planes, operating from the many secondary airports scattered across the country. Fully 98% of us live within a 30 minute drive of one of these public use airports and in the near future we may be able to hop on an air taxi or fly ourselves to our destination.
Two companies that are betting on this future are mentioned in the book. Eclipse makes a small, 5-8 seat, twin-jet, commuter plane that will travel at 375 mph; more importantly it will cost about $1 million, a quarter of the cost of the typical corporate jet. Cirrus Designs makes 5 seater, single engined, piston driven GA plane that is more comfortable, better designed, and safer than the existing Cessna's, and Beech's. On the matter of safety, Cirrus is unique. The SR series employs an aircraft parachute that in an extreme emergency can be deployed to allow the plane to safely float to a landing. Look at the illustration on the cover of the book - that's not some imaginary device - parachute-assisted aircraft landings now exist.
Where the book does drift towards flights of the imagination though is in how soon this new dawn for general aviation will become a reality. The majority of US air travel is in flights of 500 miles or less - the very market that these two innovative planes are designed to serve - yet it remains a bumpy flight to the day when we become a nation of liberated air travellers hopping on air-taxis or flying about our business in our own planes. Case in point: given the choice between flying into Barnstable Municipal and a 20 minute drive home, compared with a 2 hour drive to Logan (and a possible delay), it's a no-brainer that I would choose the former. But wait a minute. If it's going to cost me about 40% more than an airline coach fare to fly an air-taxi, or 25-50 cents more per mile if I fly myself, I might not be doing it too often. There is a market in the business community though, with companies seeing time saved as worth the extra cost, but there's another consideration. To arrive at this day of democracy in air travel - the FREE FLIGHT implied in the books title - we would have seen GA move from the current 37 million take offs and landings per year to about 500 million a year at the 5,000 plus secondary airports across the country. That's a whole lot of additional flights. Where are the tens of thousands of new pilots going to come from?
FREE FLIGHT is well written and it's an enjoyable read about the joys of flying small planes; it's also an interesting insight into some innovative designs in general aviation planes. As a serious argument about the imminent arrival of a new age in air travel, the author reaches a bit. Nevertheless you'll be quite happy to go with him on this flight of the imagination.
on June 27, 2001
For me this will be one of the books that makes me stop friends and say: You may not think you're interested, but just start reading and you will be. The news in the book is about the realistic prospect of an alternative to "airline hell." It's also about the very surprising campaign NASA has been waging to make better, safer, cheaper small planes a reality.
The surprise is the human drama and human interest. It comes in several layers. One involves the author himself, who begins the book describing how he became fascinated with flying, and ends it describing a coast to coast trip with his wife and son in a little plane. Some passages in this are just beautiful, such as the view of Mount Rushmore from a small plane, or what flocks of migrating birds look like from above.
Another layer involves the entrepreneurial struggle of the little companies he describes. This reminds me a lot of "The Soul of a New Machine," but in a different industry.
There is even life and death drama, involving the death of a test pilot and the way that almost destroyed one of the companies. This is a great summer read, best of all for the next involuntary delay in an airport.
on August 8, 2001
Having received Free Flight as a gift from an amateur pilot, I harbored little hope that the book would be comprehensible, let alone engrossing, to a commercial-only flier such as myself. How wrong I was. In a page-turner reminiscent of Michael Lewis at his best, Fallows explores the industry and culture of General Aviation (small planes) through the stories of two upstart airplane manufacturers. The reader is inevitably drawn in by the characters who populate the Cirrus and Eclipse companies. At the same time as he finds himself willing these entrepreneurs on in their struggle against the realities of economics and aeronautics, the reader also comes to appreciate the implications for the entire country if these men succeed. What seems at first an impossible fantasy, private planes for the masses and freedom from the yoke of large carries, comes to seem plausible and even likely. If Fallows's vision of the future is correct, Free Flight will serve as an invaluable introduction to the world in which we will all soon live. Even if America never boasts an airplane in every garage, Free Flight is still an irresistible snapshot of a world with which few of us are familiar.