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Not So Fast

Is it finally time to pump the brakes on our dream of high-speed travel?

Two recent travel-news items caught my attention. One said that supersonic air travel is likely to become a reality once again. The other reported that California’s much-anticipated, severely troubled $77 billion-plus “bullet train” between Los Angeles and San Francisco (380 miles) has gone mostly off the rails, and instead is now being scaled down to a 163-mile link in the Central Valley that’s currently budgeted at a mere $10.6 billion.

 You would not think those two projects have much in common, but they do. They are both ostensibly about the strong aspirational market for something we all desire but seldom get: The demand for speedier travel.

News accounts sound wildly optimistic. “Jet aiming to fly three times faster than Concorde is unveiled!” The Daily Mail, the down-market British tabloid with a robust U.S. online presence, announced breathlessly. That headline was on a story saying that Boeing is doing feasibility studies for a “hypersonic” airliner that would fly long distances at altitudes exceeding 90,000 feet and cruising at Mach 5 – five times the speed of sound.

There are two other notable supersonic airliner projects underway. Lockheed Martin is working on its “Quiet Supersonic” planes, which would cruise at Mach 1.4 and could be in  flight testing in 2021. Meanwhile, a Colorado company is developing a Mach 2.2 airliner called Overture, which the company founder and CEO Blake Scholl predicts will emerge, after it is introduced in 2023, as “the world’s first economically viable supersonic airliner.”

Scholl’s company has a provocative name: Boom Supersonic. Sonic booms, the thunderclap made when an airplane breaks the sound barrier, are of course a major impediment to widespread acceptance of supersonic commercial air travel, which came to an abrupt halt in 2003 when the chronically money-losing British Airways and Air France Concorde flights were ended.

Incidentally, I was lucky enough in 2003 to have flown on the final flights of both the B.A. and Air France Concordes, which cruised at just over Mach 2 and made it between New York and London or Paris in less than three and a half hours. The roundtrip fare was in the $15,000 range, and the customers tended to be lawyers, high-end consultants and well-heeled celebrities for whom the appeal was mainly speed – and the fact that someone else was paying the way. For me, a mere newspaper columnist, the short-lived appeal (beyond curiosity), was that a Concorde flight was essentially a three-hour feast of great food and drink, with a view at 60,000 feet that enabled you to see the curvature of the earth.

Concorde avoided the sonic boom problem by not flying overland at supersonic speed, but that in turn restricted where it could fly, as did the limited range – basically just across the Atlantic — imposed by the existing technology. Boom Supersonic is looking long-term at an ambitious route system, largely geared to business travelers, that will, for example, cut the flying time to 6 hours and 45 minutes between Los Angeles and Sydney, instead of the current 15 hours on a standard subsonic flight.

But as the saying goes, not so fast. There are plenty of reasons for skepticism about supersonic airliners. Tops on the list are those sonic booms, as well as sharply increased carbon-dioxide emissions. Using a model developed at Stanford University, the International Council of Clean Transportation, an advocacy group, issued a study in January finding that an average 5,000 supersonic flights a day on a projected 2,000 supersonic airliners operating from 160 airports mostly in North America, Asia, Europe and the Middle East would emit C02 emissions each year --equivalent to the total combined 2017 emissions of American, Delta and Southwest. Land areas along flight paths would resonate with as many as 200 sonic booms a day.

“Not so fast” also applies to any short-term hopes for high-speed rail travel in the United States. Now, our only “higher-speed” rail service is the Acela train between Washington D.C, New York and Boston on Amtrak’s profitable Northeast Corridor. But Acela trains barely crack 135 miles an hour on some stretches between New York and Washington.

There are some other hopes for smaller-scale higher-speed rail, including a line under feasibility study between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. (Portland-Vancouver is about 315 miles; Seattle-Vancouver a mere 140 miles).  There is also long-term planning underway for a possible high speed rail line, funded by private capital, between Dallas and Houston (239 miles).

But realistic hopes any time soon for true high-speed rail like the bullet-trains travelers are delighted to find in Europe and Asia have pretty much faded, now that California has severely sidetracked its very controversial high-speed plans.

Myself, I need to make a business trip next month from my home in Tucson to Los Angeles, followed by several days in Sacramento and several more in San Francisco. It’s a little over 450 miles from Tucson to Los Angeles, but I don’t want to more than half of the day flying, which usually requires a connection in Phoenix. And while I often prefer to drive rather than fly on trips up to about 250 miles, driving to Los Angeles across the desert means almost eight hours behind the wheel on a busy Interstate.

So I’m taking the bus. Not so fast, again: it’s a ten-hour trip. But the fare is $44.99, and the bus has WiFi and seats with extra legroom. The overnight bus fare from Los Angeles to Sacramento, an 10-hour trip that also avoids a hotel stay, will be about $42.

In a future column I’ll let you know whether bus travel is a feasible alternative for business trips of under 500 miles. I hear that it is, but let’s just say I’m skeptical.

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MEMO PAD – United Airlines plans to increase the number of business-class seats in its 767-300s between New York and London and on other heavy business-travel routes … Global airlines are expected to report a 10th consecutive year of profitability for 2018, a first. One reason airlines are so flush is the sharp rise in revenue they earn from ancillary fees -- $65 billion in 2018, according to a new report by IdeaWorks and Cartrawler. That’s more than double the global ancillary-fee revenue from 2014. … Grand Canyon National Park turns 100 on February 26. The park had 6.43 million visitors in 2018, up from 4.43 million 10 years earlier … The intensely competitive hotel industry keeps piling up revenue gains. Among the top 25 U.S. markets, San Francisco/San Mateo hotels had the largest increase in the key metric of revenue per available room for the week ending February 17: Up 62 percent, to $267.60, compared with the comparable 2018 week, says the hotel research firm STR. One of the reasons is the robust group business at San Francisco’s $550 million expansion of Moscone Center, which reopened in January with 505,000 square feet of convention space, up from 260,000 square feet.

Posted by

Joe Sharkey