Observations of Flying Domestic in Australia

I had a 1 day meeting in Melbourne. Apparently the SYD to MEL is the busiest air market in the world outside of Asia (and depending on the list, 2nd in the world).

Deplaning at Melbourne both via stairs and via the Jetway
Deplaning at Melbourne both via stairs and via the Jetway

I flew Virgin Australia (VA) on a 7:00 am flight

  1. The Sydney airport is near the city and served by (pricey) rail. To get to the airport I took an Uber, which was $13 to the Domestic Terminal at Sydney. (It would be about a 1 hour walk). For reasons, a Train is $11. Clearly the train is overpriced, this is due to a PPP to build the train, and a poorly written contract that has never been corrected. The aim is to extract dollars from airport travelers (the high price is only for boarding or alighting at the airport, not elsewhere on the line.
  2. The Sydney terminals are fairly new and modern.
  3. Security doesn’t ask for ID. The line is short. Take out your laptop and walk through, while your bags are scanned. (Update: I am reminded that you can take your liquids with you as well.)
  4. The airline doesn’t ask for ID, you just show a Boarding Pass. I could be anyone. No one cares. It is not a problem.
  5. Boarding occurs from both the front and back of the plane, the front through the jetway, the back via steps on the tarmac. This halves boarding time. If boarding time is the bottleneck, this seems significant.
  6. The flight was on-time.
  7. The flight was not full, no one was in the middle seat
  8. VA has inflight app so there are no screen in the seats (lowering airplane weight by the amount of 180 small monitors, saving fuel). The working assumption is everyone has their own device. The WiFi only serviced the app, rather than the full Internet.
  9. They give you select drinks (but not soft drinks … which are both expensive and scarce in Australia) and a cookie complementary. It was a tastier cookie than found on US airlines.
  10. Deplaning at Melbourne is also via the tarmac for the back half of the plane

The return (MEL to SYD) that evening was again via VA

Melbourne's modern terminal building
Melbourne’s modern terminal building
  1. VA cancelled my scheduled 8 pm flight, but rebooked automatically on a later 9:15 flight. They texted me with a few hours notice.
  2.  I called the number in the text message, and they picked up right away. (Not 3 hours later, the way Delta operates.)
  3. I was rebooked on an earlier (7 pm) flight, though I got a middle seat instead of the preferred aisle. This flight was delayed 35 minutes, to 19:35 but 25 minutes earlier than the previous flight.
  4. Melbourne terminals are new and modern. They are not terribly distinct from most US terminals. However the airport at Tullamarine is located far from the city center and not served by rail or tram. There is a bus service we did not use (we came by taxi)
  5. Security at Melbourne was similar to Sydney, except I get “randomly selected”  with a few other people for the magic wand treatment looking for explosives. Sadly, none were found. None are ever found.
  6. I would fly VA again. It’s far better than any US carrier I have experienced, despite being reschedued.
  7. I took the train home, because I would have to figure our where to find the Uber pickup at Sydney airport, and wait, which is about as much time as walking back from Green Square.

On Indulgences and Carbon Offsets

Catholics have a notion called “Indulgences”. Wikipedia summarizes it as “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.” In the Middle Ages, indulgences were commercialized, so wealthy people could buy themselves out of punishment (or the loss of wealth might be considered the punishment, if you want to be charitable).


In the modern world, carbon emission is a great sin. Those traveling by air sin the most. Prominent environmentalists are often targeted for hypocrisy, and those hoping to avoid hypocrisy might purchase “Carbon Offsets“. These are the more equivalent of commercial indulgences. The airlines offer them to guilt-ridden passengers.

Perhaps the most obvious, ‘common sense’, solution when demand (pollution) is in excess of supply is to expand capacity.  This is what we do with most things if we can. If our house is too small, we make it bigger. If our wallet can’t hold all of our cash and ID cards, we get a bigger one. If the internet is too slow, we add capacity. In roads, this usually means adding lanes to existing roads. Perhaps we could plant more trees to absorb more carbon pollution.

Consider for instance the Boston to London round trip. It is 3255 miles each way (5237 km) and 1.1799 metric tons of Carbon roundtrip. For $14.16 or 1,888 Award Miles a United Airlines passenger can support the  Alto Mayo Conservation Initiative. Objectively this is not a lot of money in the scheme of things, and maybe it will offset your trip. I don’t have the impression most travelers purchase these indulgences.

More importantly, I don’t think this scales. Some estimates below:

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

A Trans-atlantic flight might require 11 trees per person per flight to do a full offset.  There are about 100 million international enplanements from the US per year.  Not all are Transatlantic of course, many are Trans-Pacific or to South America, and so longer. I will leave it to a research paper to figure out total distance. So that is on the order of 1100 million trees per year (probably more) to be planted to guiltlessly offset US international air travel.  Let’s assume 5m x 5m per tree (25 m^2). 25*1100M = 27,500 million square meters to offset international aviation from the US (excluding US domestic aviation and travel in other countries. That is 27,500 km^2, or an area of about 165 x 165 km on edge per year (for say 50 years until aviation switches to biofuels). This is the size of Massachusetts.

While that is technically feasible, since the US has lots of land (and is more than 50x the size of Massachusetts, as Massachusetts is a smaller than average state), no-one is actually doing this, and the offset is over the life of the tree, not immediate, so we would need one Massachusetts per year until the end of carbon-emitting aviation to make offsets work.

I like to think in terms of queues. The environment can clear (absorb) a certain amount of CO2 per year, basically the equivalent of net zero carbon emissions. If there is a positive amount of emissions, the CO2 queues in the atmosphere, waiting to be absorbed. (And probably doing things to the environment we wish were otherwise.)

If offsets are not employed, the alternative is that the accumulated CO2 queue from US Transatlantic enplanements will continue to grow. We could pull out Kant’s categorical imperative “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” and argue since this doesn’t scale (can’t become a universal law), you shouldn’t do it. But that’s the sort of philosophical nonsense that we hope philosophers have recovered from.

Just because it can’t solve the entire problem and can’t become universal doesn’t mean it can’t be useful to plant more trees.  Trees are good. However, while a carbon offset indulgence may absolve you from guilt on a particular trip, it cannot absolve the industry, since it cannot scale.  Imagine the number of trees required for all aviation, not just international, and for auto travel (about 10x aviation). A more serious solution is required, one which either takes CO2 out of the air more efficiently, produces less CO2 per flight (through say biofuels or electric power), or reduces the number of CO2 emitting activities like flights (and internal combustion engine car trips) (by reducing travel).

Now to be clear, if you expand the capacity of the planet to absorb pollution (i.e. plant more trees), and people pay for their pollution, the reduced cost of per unit of pollution means that people will pollute more. Drivers will travel longer, industry will use less socially efficient means for energy generation. There might be a small amount of GDP growth associated with both the geo-engineering and resource extraction, so it is not entirely a bad thing, but it may not solve your pollution problem.


Midway Airport | streets.mn

This post is part of Snark Week at streets.mn.

The St. Paul Ports Authority, in concert with Metro Transit, has decided to replicate Chicago’s successful example and build a new airport at Midway. Just as Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is on the Blue Line, the new St. Paul Airport at Midway [Airport Code; SPAM] will be conveniently located at the junction of the Green Line and the A-Line, and at the interchange of I-94 and Snelling Avenue. Officials say the existing Midway shopping centers can remain, since their parking lots are already empty enough to land a plane on.

Spruce Tree Center, Saint Paul Minnesota Painting by Carolyn Swiszcz, 2001
Spruce Tree Center, Saint Paul Minnesota Painting by Carolyn Swiszcz, 2001


“This is the kind of transit-oriented development that will put street level vitality back into the Midway District” said Foppus Loppet, head of the Midway TOD Planning and Implementation Task Force Alliance (MT PITFall).

Metro Transit expects that the airport, with convenient crosswalks across University Avenue, will add 973 riders per day, depending on the number of flights. It is expected that I-94 will be used as an approach flight way, with flights landing from the West and taking off from the East on the one runway.

The terminal will be an adaptive reuse of Spruce Tree Center, with a jetway across Snelling Avenue to connect to planes on the apron just east of Snelling Avenue.

If this airport is successful, it is expected Transit-Oriented Airport Development (TOADs) will be implemented along all Twin Cities Transitways, making air travel as convenient in the Metro as it is in Chicagoland.

Approval is pending a decision by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Prison vs. Airport

Prisons and Airports are both among the most secure places we have on earth, protected by guards, so that their residents (inmates, passengers) don’t mix with everyone else.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition (Garrison and Levinson 2014)
US Domestic Enplanments: Source The Transportation Experience: Second Edition (Garrison and Levinson 2014)

The core difference is that the prison is isolated so that the bad guys stay in, while the airport is isolated so that the bad guys stay out. To get into the airport, you must demonstrate you are safe, while to get into prison, you must be proven to be unsafe.

US Incarceration Timeline, from wikipedia
US Incarceration Timeline, from wikipedia

In the US prison populations and airport passengers have both increased over the decades, though seem to have leveled off in the past few years, such that we are perhaps at both “peak aviation” and “peak prison”.

Perhaps isolation is not the key to safety.




Should airport security be centralized or at the gate?

At most airports, there is a central security at front of the terminal, and then you proceed to your gate, having cleared security. At Schiphol in the Netherlands, security is instead at the departure gate. The metal detectors are fixed, but the security agents move around to the flight that will be soon taking off.

2013 09 14 at 14 22 10

This makes it more painful to change planes, but ensures that the plane won’t take off while there are passengers in the security line for that particular flight. It also ensures that the flight itself is secure, though someone might have snuck through another airport with less rigorous security. It also gives waiting passengers something to do, without having to be nervous about getting to the gate on-time.

I always thought this was an intentional design feature, which just had not been replicated at other airports due to the fixed costs of creating more controlled waiting environments, but it turns out to be considered more of a bug, since the European Investment Bank is lending Schiphol EUR 200 million to remodel the airport to make it more typical.

Els de Groot, Chief Financial Officer of Schiphol Group said “We welcome the EIB’s continued support for our airport investments, following successful funding by the EIB in the last decade of other important Schiphol projects including the fifth runway and the 70 MB baggage system programme. To remain Europe’s preferred airport we will invest an additional EUR 500 million in the coming years. An important part of this is directly related to creation of a central security facility for the entire terminal. Gate security checks for flights to non-Schengen destinations will disappear and be replaced by five central security filters. This will both improve passenger comfort and significantly enhance the efficiency of the passenger handling process for both the airport and airlines”.

Why must I travel, why can’t I tele-conference

Two times in two days last week I was asked to fly to an east coast city for a half-day meeting. The meeting organizers offered to pay my travel expenses. I asked to save the travel money and tele-conference in via some/any web-based video technology. The organizers declined, saying they weren’t set up to do that.

Seriously, you can pay more than a $1000 to bring me in considering airline tickets, hotel, ground transportation, and meals, but you can’t get your act together to have a room with wireline internet, a camera enabled laptop (aren’t they all now), and Skype or FaceTime or Google Hangouts or any of a hundred other services at a marginal monetary outlay of zero and a time outlay of damn close to that?

I hypothesize one source of the problem is the technological backwardness of the governmental/consulting/advocacy/transportation sector. This is a process of mutual causation. Technological backwardness deters the technologically advanced from entering the sector, reinforcing the backwardness. It’s a wonder there are PCs on people’s desks. It’s no wonder we see no progress. I fully anticipate major changes to the transportation sector to come from outside actors, much like the Google self-driving vehicle because of this innovation aversion.

The second source of the problem might be incentives. I hypothesize the meeting organizers budgeted for travel, and not for information technology. They have no incentive not to spend the budget, the money has to get spent.

The third source of the problem is also incentives. My travel time costs them nothing. My video conferencing takes them a few minutes. No matter their few minutes are a lot less time than my travel, they (not me) are spending it.

I realize video-conferences are not quite as high a resolution in audio or video as being present, and in the hands of the incompetent have meeting-disruptive technical difficulties. But they are good enough for the purposes of this kind of conversation, for which conference calls are often used.

It is not that I object to spending your money, or actually want to save you money. I am not noble in this regard. It is that travel is a major hassle, filled with danger and uncertainty. This is often not worth it for me anymore especially for a less than one-day meeting in a city I have seen plenty of times where

I am doing you a favor by being present (you asked me to attend, not vice versa). Moreover, I don’t want to eat another dinner at an east coast airport.

Update: Bill Lindeke suggests: @trnsprttnst perhaps transportation scholars are inherently biased towards transporting things/people

How a chance encounter in St. Paul almost prevented World War II

Cross-posted from streets.mn How a chance encounter in St. Paul almost prevented World War II :

“While staying in St. Paul, Minnesota, Zeppelin encountered a fellow German who had served for the Union inflating a hot-air balloon. It was here Count Zeppelin first went airborne in 1863. The rest, as the say, is history.”

How a chance encounter in St. Paul almost prevented World War II

The first manned flight may have been in 559, when the Emporer’s son, Yuan Huangtou of Ye, China was forcibly strapped to a kite and set airborne from a tower. Yuan Huangtou was later executed, and this experiment did not lead to any follow-on.

The French Montgolfier Brothers designed and took off in a hot-air balloon in 1783 (with others), which is credited as the first manned free-flight. In 1891, German Otto Lilienthal flew in a glider. By 1898, internal combustion engines were powering airships (dirigibles) designed and flown by Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont. Numerous other pioneers made attempts. Two bicycle mechanics, better known as the Wright Brothers then changed the world in 1903.

The history of flight passed briefly through Minnesota on a couple of occasions. Charles Lindbergh grew up near Little Falls, Minnesota. He of course was a leader in the Nazi-sympathizing America First pacifist movement. This was not helpful in the War effort.

However, the relationship of Minnesota and Germany and aviation has another interaction.

Coming to the US as an observer to the American Civil War representing Wurttemberg (Germany was not yet unified), Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin decided to explore the North American frontier (See Botting (2001) for discussion of the history of the Zeppelin Company). While staying in St. Paul, Minnesota, Zeppelin encountered a fellow German who had served for the Union inflating a hot-air balloon. It was here Count Zeppelin first went airborne in 1863. The rest, as the say, is history.

Almost half a century later (1909), the Zeppelin Company he founded was facing financial difficulties selling airships to the German military, and decided to start an airline (DELAG). While it was not at first as successful in organizing regular service, it did provide some (with logistical support from the Hamburg-Amerika steamship lines), marking the first commercial airline.

By 1914, DELAG had made over 2,000 flights, totaling 100,000 miles (160,000 km), carrying 34,028 passengers. World War I changed the nature of airship use, and the German military’s interest. By war’s end, almost 100 airships had been used for the German army and navy, and more than half were lost, indicating lower success than hoped for, and significantly underperforming airplanes. Still, the Americans showed some interest, and after the War, the US Navy ordered some airships from the Zeppelin Company as part of reparations payments, to the anger of some Germans, who disapproved of the technology transfer. An assassin skulked Dr. Hugo Eckener, famous dirigible pilot and the manager of the Zeppelin Company.


Hugo Eckener, Dirigible pilot, Nazi fighterEckener was so prominent in post World War I Germany he almost stood for President against Hitler. But stepped aside when President and war hero Count von Hindenberg chose to run again. Had the anti-Nazi Eckener run (and won of course), he may have proven himself far more competent and avoided the subsequent rise of Hitler altogether.


So St. Paul gave Count Zeppelin his first balloon flight and infected him with the aviation bug. Zeppelin gave Eckener his position with the company and the opportunity to become nationally regarded, and Eckener may have stopped the rise of Hitler.


Prior to the 1938 LZ 129 Hindenberg (named for the Count) disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, no passenger had died due to a crash of a Zeppelin airship. Transatlantic Airship travel was not doomed due to this one well-publicized crash, but rather to the rise of Pan American Airways flights, which were much faster, though less comfortable. Though there was an attempt to convert future airships (such as the LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II) to Helium rather than Hydrogen, the US government withheld Helium supplies under the 1937 Neutrality Act.

Adapted in part from The Transportation Experience, 2nd Edition.


John Silva, Maker of ‘Telecopter’ Camera, Dies at 92

NYT Reports: John Silva, Maker of ‘Telecopter’ Camera, Dies at 92 :

“Helicopter news footage is common today. But until myriad problems in sending live pictures from a moving aircraft were solved, television broadcasters could not show an eagle’s-eye view of a forest fire, or contemplate aerial coverage of, say, a famous man fleeing the police in a white Ford Bronco.
John Silva made that now-familiar vantage possible in 1958, when he converted a small helicopter into the first airborne virtual television studio.”

Autonomous civil aircraft could be flying before cars go driverless

The Economist on Pilotless aircraft: This is your ground pilot speaking :

“Progress is being made, a conference in London heard this week. It was organised by the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation and Assessment (ASTRAEA), the group staging the British test flights. This £62m ($99m) programme, backed by the British government, involves seven European aerospace companies: AOS, BAE Systems, Cassidian, Cobham, QinetiQ, Rolls-Royce and Thales.
It is potentially a huge new market. America’s aviation regulators have been asked by Congress to integrate unmanned aircraft into the air-traffic control system as early as 2015. Some small drones are already used in commercial applications, such as aerial photography, but in most countries they are confined to flying within sight of their ground pilot, much like radio-controlled model aircraft. Bigger aircraft would be capable of flying farther and doing a lot more things.
Pilotless aircraft could carry out many jobs at a lower cost than manned aircraft and helicopters—tasks such as traffic monitoring, border patrols, police surveillance and checking power lines. They could also operate in conditions that are dangerous for pilots, including monitoring forest fires or nuclear-power accidents. And they could fly extended missions for search and rescue, environmental monitoring or even provide temporary airborne Wi-Fi and mobile-phone services. Some analysts think the global civilian market for unmanned aircraft and services could be worth more than $50 billion by 2020.”