ARTICLES

IS AIR TRAVEL OBSOLETE?

Too many passengers are dying in air crashes. Too many others are complaining about delays, discomforts and annoyances. Here’s why air travel is in trouble and where it goes from here

Ken Lefolii May 7 1960
ARTICLES

IS AIR TRAVEL OBSOLETE?

Too many passengers are dying in air crashes. Too many others are complaining about delays, discomforts and annoyances. Here’s why air travel is in trouble and where it goes from here

Ken Lefolii May 7 1960

IS AIR TRAVEL OBSOLETE?

ARTICLES

Too many passengers are dying in air crashes. Too many others are complaining about delays, discomforts and annoyances. Here’s why air travel is in trouble and where it goes from here

Ken Lefolii

In the first two months and seventeen days of 1960 there were nine fatal crashes on the world's air routes. Three hundred and ninety people, traveling by air to save time or avoid inconvenience, died.

Recorded air disasters around the world took only six hundred and twenty-five lives in the entire twelve months of 1959.

The epidemic of destruction that contaminated the air during the early part of this year may have been caused, in part, by criminal insanity: the perverse idea that packing a time bomb aboard an airliner is a foolproof and profitable way to commit suicide and mass murder.

The suspicion that planes are being bombed merely adds a macabre overtone to the uneasy attitude toward the air that is infecting more people with each successive disaster.

Surprisingly, the sudden prevalence of death in the air has done little so far to discourage people from flying. Airlines record a sharp drop in sales during the

surge of new business after a crash but it rarely lasts

more than a week.

But if air travelers have refused to be frightened out of the air by the mounting disaster rate, they have a multitude of other reasons to be increasingly frustrated, irritated and discouraged. These arc the delays, discomforts and difficulties that have come to be a commonplace part of flying.

The swelling denunciations of air travel start with complaints about the difficulty in making, confirming, and reconfirming reservations. Hundreds of thousands of passengers condemn the time wasted in ground transportation to and from the airport, decry the cowshed conveniences at the air terminals, and excoriate the mob scene at the flight check-in counters. They indict the frequent misinformation about flight schedules and take-off times, the poor food and cramped seating in the air, and the strayed or smashed baggage back on the ground.

The most bitter complaints are reserved for broken schedules and long delays. An air line that doesn’t fly on time without a clear safety reason for delay, they accuse, is breaking faith with its passengers.

In all these alarms and irritations, air travel is largely the victim of its own success. In 1939 a single adventurous Lodestar was the only airplane in Canada that could hoist itself over the Rockies, and all the planes in the country carried only ninety-five thousand passengers all year. In 1959 the civil airlines in Canada carried four and a half million passengers here and on trans-border flights. Around the world other airlines have grown almost as fast. To do it, they have crowded the air with big. fast planes. But busy airplanes and screaming speed are invitations to collision, and if one of the big new DC-8 jetliners now coming into service in Canada ever crashes it will bury 127 passengers with it instead of the dozen passengers or so who went down when an early passenger plane crashed.

Danger and dissatisfaction aren't all the air industry has to contend with: it has an almost insatiable appetite for money. The airlines are already wondering where to find the billions of dollars it will take to buy a new round of aircraft bigger and better than the DC-8s and other jetliners reaching the airlanes now. And the high cost of air transport doesn’t stop here. The department of transport in Canada is laying out a billion dollars to improve air facilities in most large Canadian air centres over the next few years, and so far has brought little but controversy and denunciation for the people's money. The same hassle is going on all over the world.

There is a forgotten man in the middle of the scramble: the man who doesn't ride planes under any circumstances. Despite the breakaway growth of air travel, the best estimate anybody can make is that only one Canadian out of eight ever gets off the ground in any one year. The other seven either don't travel, don’t like flying, or can't afford the fares, which are still stiff compared with bus and train rates. But the tax bite for new facilities hits the seven men who never fly just as hard as it hits the eighth who does.

Are people who don’t fly paying too much for air travel? Are people who do fly paying too much? Is air travel too dangerous? Is it too aggravating? For a closer look at the open questions, and the answers the air industry is betting on, turn the page.

IS IT TOO DANGEROUS?

IS IT TOO AGGRAVATING?

WHERE, IF ANYWHERE, DOES IT GO NEXT?

Twenty-four hours after an Electra turbo-jet passenger plane exploded in the air over Indiana last St. Patrick's day. killing all sixty - three people aboard, a man named Morris Challen boarded a Stratocruiser at New York. Chalfen’s wife and three children had been killed in the St. Patrick's day disaster; within hours Challen brushed death himself. Two National Guard jet fighters streaked into the Stratocruiser's line of flight. The pilot threw the big plane into a three-hundred-foot dive that buffeted his seventy-three passengers badly but. quite possibly, saved their lives.

The jet pilots later denied there had been danger of a collision. Airlines pilots reply that if the jets were close enough to make the passenger plane dive, the danger must have been critical. At present airspeeds a pilot sometimes can’t do much to avoid a collision once he's within a mile of another plane moving to meet him at the same altitude.

"In both Canada and the U. S. the military flight standards are nonsense,” says Captain Lewis Wyman. a senior TCA pilot. "In Canada the situation is worse, but luckily we have fewer military planes in the air. Even so. air authorities are begging for another Moose Jaw.” In 1954, as most Canadians recall, a TCA airliner collided with an RCAF trainer over Moose Jaw. Thirty-seven people died.

The pilots insist that the air won't be as safe as it should be until military flights are under the same strict controls and regulations as civil flights, and both sets of pilots know what the other set is doing. (Many experts believe even civilian aviation regulations badly need toughening up.) On the air lane from Montreal to New York, which Wyman flies often, his TCA Vanguard’s flight path is regularly intersected by a U. S. Air Force transport plane. The transport's altitude is always radioed to Wyman as five hundred feet below Wyman's own altitude. “Ridiculous,” Wyman accuses. "My instruments can be wrong by two hundred and fifty feet or more just as easily as his; an altimeter is a guessing instrument, not a ruler. One murky night there’s going to be a slaughter.”

Slaughter threatens the air from several other directions:

Although formal proof is lacking, there seems to be little doubt that home-made bombs stowed in passengers’ baggage have brought down at least two and possibly three big airliners in the U. S. since last winter. Every interested agency on the continent, from the FBI to the insurance companies, has been scrambling for a practical method of screening luggage for explosives before it's stowed in the plane. "There's nothing, absolutely nothing,” says Martin Betts, TCA’s prematurely grey director of passenger trallie. "Fluoroscopes pick up every tube of toothpaste; X-rays detect every safety razor. We’d wind up searching every bag at the terminal, and we'd never get our planes off the ground.” Most industry officials agree w ith Betts, although there is a partial solution nobody seems willing to try. The pilots’ associations here and in the U. S. are pressing the ingenious proposal that every stick of dynamite manufactured on the continent should be exposed to a fractional trace of irradiation before it leaves the factory. Dynamite, the pilots point out, provides the bang in almost every home-made bomb. A stick of dynamite no more radioactive than a luminous watch dial would still trigger a detection device mounted over the baggage scales. It’s not foolproof: there are other explosives than dynamite, for one thing; the system is expensive, for another; and a murderer could build a lead shield for his bomb. When these objections are put in front of the pilots, they ask if anybody’s got a better idea. Nobody has.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 78

The day the Wright brothers lifted the first heavierthan-air craft off the ground under its own power, there must have been one or two onlookers who speculated that some day flying might be a faster, more comfortable, and possibly even cheaper way to get around than going by land or sea. And so, these days, it often is.

But you will find it hard to sell the convenience of air travel to the businessman who recently flew from Toronto to Windsor and learned four angry days later that TCA had finally located his lost baggage in. of all places, Prague. Nor will you find it easy to sell its speed to the thousands of people who fly from Ottawa to Montreal in half an hour, and then spend forty-five minutes trying to jostle other passengers out of a seat in one of the handful of Fords that pass for ground transportation between Dorval Airport and downtown Montreal. Nor will you . . . but let's start at the beginning and find out what gripes people about air travel, and why the airlines have so many dissatisfied customers.

For several years TCA has been surveying its passengers to find out whether they were satisfied with their latest flight, and if not why not. A few years ago about twenty percent of the passengers said no. they were not satisfied, for any one of a score of irritating reasons. In the latest survey, which was made less than a year ago. only fourteen percent weren't satisfied. But this is one of those arithmetical shuffles that deserve a second look. Far more people are flying now: in 1959, TCA carried well over three million passengers, and since fourteen percent of them griped about the flight they were on. this means that between four and five hundred thousand flights went sour last year. Here are the annoyances that soured people most frequently, and the steps the airlines are taking to improve them. (Although much of the information about passenger complaints is from TCA's files, it can be read as representative of all air travel):

The too-frequent botch of air reservations: One out of four people who phone TCA can't get a reservation on the flight he wants. He has a slightly better than even chance of getting it eventually, if he puts his name on a waiting list. A little less than half the time, he's pushed onto an alternate flight. All of these telephone transactions are troublesome; more than one caller out of ten complains about delays even in getting a booking clerk to answer the phone. When he's finally made a return reservation, he has to reconfirm it at the other end. a step that annoys people who intend to fly and doesn't bother the ones who intend to back out — they reconfirm and fail to show' up anyway. With a reservation made, a would-be passenger can't relax till plane time; he has to pick up his ticket (and pay for it in cash unless he has a credit card or a yen to pay in installments) at a downtown ticket office several hours before flight time. Few people who fly often have missed being held up for half an hour at the ticket counter while the man ahead of them negotiates a trip to Karachi. But the climactic outrage comes when a man who has wheedled and bullied his way into a seat on a supposedly sold-out plane steps inside (if he isn't informed at the airport that a mistake has been made and he'll have to wait for a later flight) and finds he's riding a plane with half a dozen empty seats.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 80

The catalogue given in the previous sections ot the irritations and risks that harass air travelers by no means covers all the ground—anybody who travels by air a good deal probably fears a hazard or denounces an aggravation that isn't even mentioned. The man who told TCA that, alter one flight from Vancouver to Victoria, his baggage looked as though it had been around the world, was hardly alone in his exasperation. Nor was the man who said he could see “no excuse or justification” for a TCA phone call that tumbled him out of bed at 5 a.m. to tell him that he had been switched from an 8.30 a.m. flight to one half an hour later.

If the airlines sit on their hands while the apprehension and aggravation described here fester, air travel wall be in grave trouble. But the airlines have more than optimism and apologies going lor them. Some of their solutions have already been described. Here is what they expect to happen in three other important departments of air travel:

Price: Bigger and faster planes will continue to pare the price of air tickets, even though the cost of airfields, controls and elaborate facilities, which are bankrolled by the taxpayers, will keep swelling the real cost of air travel. In 1956 a first-class Toronto-Edmonton flight cost $132. Now' it costs $127. Other domestic air fares have dropped to scale, although in the U. S. domestic fares have gone up slightly. On long international flights the reductions have been, and will go on being, more important. In mid-March this year the airlines introduced a seventeen-day round trip excursion fare between Montreal and London of $299. Four years ago the cheapest trans-Atlantic return fare was $511. When the jetliners now' coming into service are broken in, they'll probably make another round of price-cutting possible.

Reliability: Computing machines now being programmed are expected to produce a sharp rise in the accuracy of weather forecasts, which will be reflected in flight information. The new jet airliners are simpler machines, in an engineering sense, than present propeller-driven planes. This should reduce repair and breakdown delays. Automatic landing systems are under hopeful test; they are expected to be able to bring a plane down at its scheduled destination regardless of local weather conditions. The vertical - take - oll - and - landing planes, if and when they come, will be able to put down at a choice of landing sites in the same city. Competition: If anything, competition among the world's airlines will tend to become even less aggressive than the brotherly competition-by-agreement that governs most air travel now. The airlines’ position, simply stated, is this: an empty airplane costs as much to buy, as much to maintain, and almost as much to fly, as a full one. If one line can fill all its seats on a given route, the airlines argue, two lines will be lucky to fill much more than half their seats. (In practice, a line that sells seventy percent of its seats is doing very well.) In the months since the Air Transport Board, which rules on applications for air-route franchises in Canada, gave Canadian Pacific Airlines the right to fly a limited cross-country service, TCA has been forced to pay more attention to its passengers’ comfort or lose customers to its hustling new competitor. But TCA has lost a good many passengers to CPA anyway many that TCA president Gordon McGregor says he was forced to cancel a fare reduction that TCA had planned for January. I960. So the public, McGregor argues, is the loser in the long run.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 82

from page 17

The day when passenger aircraft (lew into electrical storms that battered them to the ground is probably gone. Most airliners now carry weather radar, and when there's a storm ahead the pilot just flies around it. But. the weather hazard isn’t licked yet. When radar domes ice up, the instruments are apt to go haywire, misleading the pilot. And as simple a device as a set of windshield wipers can be deadly. The Vanguard turbo-jet's wipers, according to TCA pilot George McNeill, are "a terrible Rube Goldberg contraption that isn’t worth a damn when it’s icing. You fly blind.” Many pilots believe that the TCA Vanguard that ploughed into the ground beyond Toronto's Malton Airport a few years ago, burying its passengers, had no graver defect than icedup, useless windshield wipers, so that the pilot suddenly found himself flying blind.

There is as much danger on the ground, the pilots say, as there is in the air. in November, 1958, a Seaboard and Western Airlines Super Constellation, with only a pilot-training crew aboard, went out of control on the ground at New York’s Idlewild Airport. The big plane ran down a “V” formed by two plane-berthing fingers jutting out from the terminal building. At the apex of the "V" it hit an empty TCA Viscount, temporarily abandoned between flights.

Five thousand gallons of aviation gasoline spilled out of the two aircraft and boiled into smoke and then llame. Both airplanes and the crew of the U. S. plane were burned to cinders, but the damage went no farther. It just happened that the accident had taken place at what TCA Captain Lewis Wyman calls "the only airport in the world that has as good a professional fire department as every major airport should have." The Idlewild fire department used up 850 drums of Foamite dousing the blaze, but they choked if off before it reached the terminal building and imperiled hundreds of lives. There isn’t an airport in Canada, the pilots say, with more than 150 drums of Foamite on hand right now, although if a DC-8 jetliner ever spills its fuel it will flood the airport with twenty thousand highly inflammable gallons.

Under heavy pressure from the pilots, the Department of Transport, which is responsible for aircraft control and airfield installations in Canada, has re-equipped most airport fire forces in the last year or so. "We still have volunteer fire departments at the fields," says John Baldwin, the department's deputy minister, "but we've bought them fifty-thousand-dollar fire-fighting units specially designed for airports. What the pilots are demanding wouldn’t cost thousands. It would cost millions." What the department is doing, the pilots continue to insist, isn't good enough.

At the bottom of the disputed issues

As jets fly faster passengers wait longer — but won’t forever

“In a conflict between saving money and saving lives, money always wins”

about danger in the air, then, you find the same thing you find at the root of so many other controversies — money. “There’s a way to reduce almost every hazard in flying,” Lewis Wyman says, and most other pilots agree. "But the way is usually expensive, and whenever there’s a conflict between saving money and saving lives, money wins.”

I asked deputy transport minister John Baldwin, a decisive man who seems to have earned the respect of airline administrators, engineers, civil servants and pilots even when they disagree with him, where the point comes when safety measures are abandoned because they’re too

expensive. “You can’t pin it down,” Baldwin said, “but it's there. Even the government only has so much money, and at some point we have to compromise.” This point, in justice to the airlines and the agencies that control their operations in the air, has been fixed favorably enough in relation to safety to produce a relative reduction in air disasters over the years. It is true that in 1929 there were only thirty-six recorded deaths from all the air travel in the world, but the w'orld’s scheduled airlines only flew about 130 million passenger miles. In 1959 there were six hundred and twenty-five deaths but the scheduled airlines flew about

fifty-nine billion passenger miles. Your chances of flying a mile and staying alive are about twenty-six times better now than they were thirty years ago.

Many people, including the men who fly the planes, refuse to believe that even a twenty-six-fold improvement is good enough as long as air travelers are dying at the rate of a hundred and thirty a month in early I960. And air travel is still the riskiest way there is to move from here to there, with a single exception. It's safer to go by bus, boat, or train, but it's six times as dangerous to take your car out on the highway and try to do it the hard way.

from page 17

The airlines have a few answers to these complaints. Some of the seats in a supposedly sokl-out plane may be reserved for passengers who'll get on at a later stop. A flight bound for Montreal from Vancouver may be forced to hold half a dozen seats for passengers boarding at Calgary. Occasionally the vacant chairs are the result of simple carelessness in the reservations department, too. but the real problem is the arrogant individual the airlines call a "nosho.” He’s the man who reserves space for a flight he may or may not take, and never bothers to let the airlines know if he decides to pass the flight up. This doesn't cost him a nickel; if he ran out on a rail reservation the same way, he’d lose every dollar he paid for his space.

Any sane man would assume that the airlines could stamp out the noshos by adopting the railways’ system: no show, no refund. The airlines simply refuse to confiscate the money, and there’s no other solution in sight. Until the airlines smack the noshos down, air travel will go on enraging even its best friends.

There may be a happier answer to the delays and occasional mistakes that plague the reservations systems. Sometime in 1961. TCA will turn the entire procedure over to a computing machine in Toronto, which will hold in its eerie memory a record of every seat on every TCA plane in the world. When you phone the ticket agency the clerk fills in the information you give her — when you w'ant to go, where, what flight, and so forth — on a two-by-five-inch card. She drops the card into an electronic box the size of a suitcase, which is coupled to the Toronto computer by land line or microwave, and the card springs back up with all the answers: whether you're confirmed on the flight you want, and if not, what the six next-best choices are. The whole transaction takes a shaved second no matter where you are, Halifax or Prince Rupert, and the computer in Toronto that supplies the answers never makes a mistake. Or so 1CA hopes and believes.

The snarl in airport-to-city ground transportation: TCA is ploughing six and a half million dollars each into a fleet of DC-8 jetliners that will clip almost half an hour off the present flying time between Toronto and Montreal. I hat means DC-8 passengers will cover the inter-city distance in less than an hour in the air. They'll still spend an hour at each end getting out to the airport and back into town: an hour flying, two hours crawling.

And the time eaten up by ground travel can only grow longer and longer. Helicopters just won’t pay their way, airlines all around the world have decided. Railways aren't interested in running spurs to airports—in Montreal TCA has asked both rail lines to serve Dorval, and raised no more than a quiet chuckle. In Dallas, Texas, they’ve built a monorail out to the airport and they're losing money. In Rome they’ll soon open a subway line to the new Ostia airport, but in Montreal they can’t even agree to build a subway for the heart of the city.

The highways that airline buses and limousines are using are grossly overcrowded already, of course, and they’re getting worse all the time. The buses and limousines themselves are a parody of efficient transportation: the man who

told a TCA interviewer that the so-called ten passenger bus he had just ridden into Ottawa from the airport was "little better than a cattle car" was speaking the mind of innumerable disgruntled air travelers. There are a good many people, too, who resent being faced with ground-transport fares as high as a dollar and a half at

each end when they’ve paid for an “allinclusive” air ticket.

In the long run, many air-travel experts believe, the only way to beat the groundtransportation snarl is to bypass it. TCA's engineering chief, a turbine-powered man named Jack Dyment, looks ahead fifteen or twenty years to the VTOL aircraft— the plane that goes straight up, flies straight ahead, and comes straight down, making its take-offs and landings from the city’s centre. "Helicopters and other rotary-wing aircraft aren't going anywhere,” Dyment says. "They can't be made to pay their way. But VTOL! Rolls Royce already has an experimental model that goes up using thrust from a bank of small jet pods, switches to a big jet for level flight, and conics back down vertically on the jet pods again. This is where we’ll be twenty years from now if we can lick the noise problem. So far it's deafening.”

The shacks we’re using for air terminals: A Canadian's view of air travel is inevitably blackened by the jerry-built shanties that pass for terminal buildings at most Canadian airports. I have seen more com-

fortable terminals at Australian bushtown airfields than the cowshed through which air travelers enter Ottawa, the nation’s capital. At Seven Islands and other small-town fields in the east, a pack of taxi drivers starts snatching at debarking passengers' coat sleeves before they’re through the terminal door, hustling trade like a swarm of Arab bum-boat boys in Aden.

What few Canadians realize is that the shanties on our airfields and their often appalling services are the result of a deliberate policy, thought by many air

experts to be a wise one. The department of transport is responsible for aircraft facilities and terminals in most Canadian cities — the exceptions. Vancouver and Calgary outstanding among them, are at cities that choose to operate their own terminals, and they are the only terminals in Canada at the moment that could be described as reasonably comfortable.

The transport department's terminals are overcrowded, uncomfortable and inefficient because the department decided to keep them that way. soon after World War II. Instead of spending money on

passengers the department spent it on facilities and controls for planes. “This was an open-eyed choice.” says deputy transport minister John Baldwin, and it seems to have worked. It is an international commonplace among authorities on the air that Canada’s aircraft facilities are among the world’s best and our passenger facilities are among the world’s worst.

When the late Liberal government decided the time had come, in the early Fifties, to give the passengers a break, it started a round of new terminal construe-

tion by laying plans for a ten-milliondollar building at Montreal’s Dorval Airport. At the last count the Dorval terminal had cost thirty-one million dollars and still wasn't finished, although transport minister Hees stoutly maintains it will open this year.

Elsewhere, the department has started work on a Toronto terminal plan eventually expected to cost about seventy million. an Ottawa terminal with marble facings like a Victorian railroad station, and half a dozen more. The new terminals at Edmonton and Halifax will go up on brand-new airfields, both more than twenty miles from the centre of town, and the ground transportation headache will cause sharp new pains in both cities.

All these new ventures, say most air authorities, including deputy transport minister Baldwin, will begin to show signs of obsolescence in ten years. What then? Why, more billions, it

from page 17

In accordance with this argument, which is accepted by almost everybody connected with the industry around the world, air travel is governed by three agencies that limit and restrain competition. First, a domestic government agency, like the Air Transport Board in Canada or the Federal Aviation Agency in the U. S., that rules on franchises and fares inside the country. Next, a worldwide congress of government agencies called the International Civil Aviation Organization, that sets standards and regulations and administers air law. Third, an organization of airlines called the International Air Transport Association that controls international fares by common agreement. With fares, franchises and standards all negotiated and controlled by these bodies, there is little real competition in the air even now, and there is small likelihood of any developing in the future.

Availability: “I like to think the day’s coming when an air traveler will step into the terminal, check a schedule with planes leaving on the hour, and buy his ticket at the door as he climbs aboard," says Martin Betts, TCA’s passenger services chief. But these air buses aren't likely to fly routes that cover less than five hundred miles. “The faster we go and the higher we fly,” says Gordon McGregor, TCA’s straight-spoken president, “the more it costs us to come down. The time will arrive, I believe, when everybody who travels less than three hundred miles will go by rail or road." McGregor doesn't mention that the railways are less than eager to haul passengers at a loss when they could be hauling freight at a profit. But this is a separate problem with no easy answer in sight.

“The airlines will be out of the shorttrip business altogether." McGregor concludes, “and there won’t be an airline in the world that will shed a tear. But by that time everybody who travels more than four or five hundred miles will go by air—he just won’t be able to afford not to."

This is a bright promise. But it is in stark contrast to the hazardous, often unreliable, and seldom irritation-free state of air travel today.