Flying Costs

Richard Adams

  • Aircraft by David Pascoe
    Reaktion, 240 pp, £14.95, September 2003, ISBN 1 86189 163 6
  • Aviation Insecurity: The New Challenges of Air Travel by Andrew Thomas
    Prometheus, 263 pp, US $21.00, May 2003, ISBN 1 59102 074 3
  • Airline Survival Kit by Nawal Taneja
    Ashgate, 224 pp, £46.50, May 2003, ISBN 0 7546 3452 3
  • Ryanair by Siobhán Creaton
    Aurum, 263 pp, £9.99, May 2004, ISBN 1 85410 992 8

The Maxim Gorky, a giant airliner built with money raised by the Union of Soviet Writers and Editors in 1934, was like nothing that had gone before it. The wings of the Tupolev-designed plane had a span of more than sixty metres, the same as a Boeing 747’s. It was driven by eight massive engines, generating between them 7000 horsepower. Its 11 cabins, connected by telephone lines and pneumatic tubes, housed a cinema, a photographic studio and a printing press, to disseminate Gorky’s works across the Soviet Union. There were ‘huge loudspeakers on the underside of the aircraft, through which might emerge’, according to David Pascoe, ‘passages from Memories of Lenin, interspersed with exhortations about the Five-Year Plan’. Eighty red lights on the fuselage allowed it to flash slogans to the remotest regions as it swooped across the Soviet Union at night. The first foreigner to fly on the Maxim Gorky was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on 17 May 1935. Sitting in the cabin, Saint-Exupéry imagined himself on the balcony of a hotel set in the sky. The very next day, the Maxim Gorky collided with another plane during a propaganda flight over Moscow and crashed, killing its 36 passengers and crew, and three people in a house that was flattened, in what was then the world’s worst air accident. The New York Times wondered in an editorial if the limits of aviation ambition had been reached, and whether ‘national pride and human desire’ were to blame for the disaster.

Saint-Exupéry, the survivor of several crash landings, disappeared on a flight from Sardinia to France in 1944, having dedicated Wind, Sand and Stars ‘to the airline pilots of America and their dead’. Even Concorde was hastened to its end, after a 25-year blemish-free record, by the Paris crash in July 2000 that killed all 109 people on board. The Soviet Union’s supersonic airliner, the Tupolev 144 ‘Concordski’, like the Maxim Gorky, crashed on a propaganda flight, at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Indeed, the history of air travel is littered with catastrophic crashes and financial failures, misconceived projects that should never have made it off the drawing board.

‘It is an oddity of globalisation,’ the Financial Times noted earlier this year, ‘that the airline industry, one of those that do most to tie the world economy together, is also one of the last to operate on fragmented national grounds.’ It is just as much an oddity that this global (but not globalised) industry barely breaks even, with only a handful of major airlines, such as Southwest, British Airways and Cathay Pacific, able to return regular profits. Human desire and national pride keep the industry aloft. At 9.25 a.m. on 11 September 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all air traffic in the United States to land immediately. Within two hours, US airspace was empty of commercial planes and every airport was closed. Passenger flights didn’t resume for three days, but by 16 September, 70 per cent had restarted. A week after 11 September, despite predictions of collapse, commercial air travel was in most respects (from a passenger’s point of view) back to normal.

One reason is that the air industry has become an essential part of the economic infrastructure of the US. By 2000, civil aviation accounted for 9 per cent of its economic output, and employed two million people. The travel industry didn’t waste any time before starting to lobby for assistance. National pride, they argued, demanded that the government bail out the airlines, thus boosting the economy and undoing the disruption caused by the terrorists. Airline executives and board members made calls to members of the government, with one Continental Airlines director telling senators that aid was needed to turn ‘a moment of fear into a moment of faith’.

The result was the Air Transportation Safety and Stabilisation Act, signed into law by President Bush on 22 September 2001, which gave the air industry a $15 billion package. Andrew Thomas, in Aviation Insecurity, quotes a Republican senator’s awed observation: ‘It was masterful . . . the airline industry made a full-court press to convince Congress that giving them billions in taxpayer cash was the only way to save the Republic.’ Those same lobbyists had spent years resisting every attempt by the federal government to impose additional security measures. In 1996 a TWA spokesman rejected the very idea: ‘TWA last year carried 21 million people and we didn’t have a single plane blown out of the sky by someone who carried a bomb on the plane through security . . . I don’t see it as an issue.’

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