Amelia Earhart broke a transcontinental speed record 90 years ago, in July 1933, flying her signature red Lockheed Vega from Los Angeles to New Jersey in just 17 hours, 7.5 minutes. Earhart had flown as an observer on a Northwest Airways winter flight across the United States earlier that year, testing the possibilities of a “Northern Transcontinental” route.
Because these early planes could not reach high altitudes, they squeezed through dangerous peaks and the erratic weather conditions that the mountain ranges helped create. One co-pilot remembers the trip as “the seat of the pants flying across the plains of Dakota and Montana and through, over and around the mountain ranges of the West”.
How does air travel compare today?
I’ve studied aircraft technology, airport design, and cultural attitudes toward air travel, and noticed how certain aspects of flight seem to have calcified over time.
Long-distance flights grew rapidly between the 1930s and the early 1960s, halving the number of hours spent in the sky. But over the past 60 years, the duration of those flights has remained about the same. Meanwhile, the air travel ecosystem has become more elaborate, often leaving passengers squirming in their seats on the tarmac before or after the flight.
Air travel from coast to coast is in a rut, but efforts are still being made to improve this mode of transport.
Just another ordinary miracle
Transcontinental air travel is clearly different 90 years after Earhart’s record-breaking exploratory flights: travelers now take such trips for granted and often find them a drudgery.
In 2018, travel blogger Ravi Ghelani reviewed in detail a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Seattle, roughly the same northern route Earhart explored in 1933.
But for Ghelani, sitting in first class, it wasn’t the terrain or freezing temperatures that were the most inconvenient part of his adventure. It was a cheap free blanket, which “barely qualified as one – it was very thin, very rough”.
The dreaded blanket reappears in Ghelani’s summary of her trip: “My main problem with this flight was the lack of a decent blanket – the small scratching blanket that was provided was not enough for the six-hour flight.”
I can imagine Earhart rolling around in her watery grave: “Are you crossing the continent in six hours and complaining about an itchy blanket?”
Yet Ghelani’s account of a mundane cross-country flight reveals one truth: Commercial air travel just isn’t the adventure it was in Earhart’s day.
As a captain of a major American airline, who regularly makes long trips, told me: “Today, airliners cross the country from Los Angeles to New York, or from Boston to Seattle, filled with passengers oblivious to the common practice it has become.
This pilot compared coast-to-coast flights to “iPhones, microwaves or automobiles” – just another ordinary miracle of modern life.
Small indignities multiply
Air travel’s high-risk adventure has been moderate, but today’s long flights can paradoxically feel torturous.
As philosopher Michael Marder says in his 2022 book, Philosophy for passengers“When crew members wish passengers ‘bon voyage’, I hear a hint of cruel irony in their words. How enjoyable can the passenger experience be when you’re crammed into your seat? , with little fresh air, too hot or miserably cold, and deprived of sleep?”
I asked my colleague and frequent traveler, Ian Bogost, about his experience traveling coast to coast, and his answer was enlightening: “The same trip seems to get longer every year and less comfortable. There are reasons – consolidation, reduction of routes, shortage of manpower for pilots and air traffic, decaying technical infrastructure – but it always feels like a step back. Despite widespread attempts to update aircraft and modernize terminals, the vast air transport system can feel cumbersome and outdated.
Recently in Atlantic, journalist Amanda Mull wrote about biometric screening company Clear, describing that company’s high-tech service to avoid the ubiquitous toil of pre-flight identity checks, at the cost of giving up some personal information and to privacy. Mull concludes that the reason more travelers are likely to sign up for the service is that “going through US airport security is just so grim.”
For Mull, the adventure of contemporary air travel isn’t the destination, or even the journey itself, it’s what you have to do to get through the airport.
Yet, it should be noted that the majority of the human population has never boarded an airplane; flying across the country remains a relatively exclusive experience. For most people, the closest thing to flying coast-to-coast is seeing a small white streak across the sky as another airliner arcs in at 35,000 feet.
Two futures of cross-country flying
Coast-to-coast travel is no longer about breakneck speed or defying elemental odds, and Earhart’s quests to push the limits of aviation couldn’t be further from the bland routines of travel. contemporary aerials. Nor does it involve people dressing up to the neck to board an airliner for the first time, with passengers stowing their fancy hats in spacious overhead compartments.
Where are the new frontiers of transcontinental flight today?
One area of innovation lies in a greener form of flight. Solar Impulse, a fully solar-powered aircraft, took two months to fly coast to coast in 2013. It averages 45 mph at cruising altitude. As the Associated Press reported: “The creators of Solar Impulse consider themselves green pioneers, promoting lighter materials, solar-powered batteries and conservation as sexy and adventurous. It’s the high-flying equivalent of the Tesla electric sports car. Solar Impulse was more recently reconfigured into a remotely piloted aircraft, with new experiments in long-range solar flight underway.
Comparing Solar Impulse to a Tesla is handy because a different extreme can be found in Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX. As part of the relentless development of its largest vehicle, “Starship,” SpaceX has announced the ability to travel “point-to-point” on Earth: for example, fly on a commercial rocket from Los Angeles to New York in 25 minutes. Never mind the physical tolls of a normal 19 hour flight; it’s hard to imagine what such a brief, yet quick trip would be like, not to mention the kind of class divisions and gloomy industrial launch sites that those jaunts would rely on.
Get there as fast as you can, using as much fuel as necessary; or slide lazily, powered by the sun, saving the planet. They are two radically different visions of flying from coast to coast, one a dystopian nightmare and the other a utopian dream.