October 26, 2003

Concorde, democracy & technology

From The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages by the late Jean Gimpel:

I was now able to date the entry of the United States into her aging or declining era: 1971. In 1971 the United States Congress refused to allocate funds for the supersonic transport project, and this antitechnological vote represented a complete reversal of the traditional attitude of the United States toward technology. If we accept 1947 as the beginning of the previous era, the United States had an era of maturity of almost twenty-five years. The Golden Age of Pericles, which was sometimes recalled during John F. Kennedy's time in the White House, lasted about the same number of years.

I was reminded of that passage when I read over the weekend about the final flights of the Concorde, and this piece arguing that the plane -- which is quite an engineering feat -- should be preserved:

Of course, the great bird never made any economic sense and burnt its way through the equivalent of 20 billion of public money in order to get airborne. ...

... British Airways claims it is going to put its five aircraft in a museum, although one might be kept airborne for shows and anniversaries. That is the least the airline can do, given that it effectively received the aircraft for free. And Richard Branson is still trying to persuade BA to let him have a stab at operating a service commercially.

Around the time that the European consortium was making the first downpayment on that 20 billion, the United States went in a different direction. The old Civilian Aviation Board, or CAB, which regulated flights and ensured airlines a profit (meaning, often, that planes flew well short of their capacity and ticket prices were exorbitantly high) was on its last legs. By 1978, Congress -- led by Ted Kennedy -- and President Carter deregulated the airline industry. No longer would CAB determine what the "public convenience" was (which is how they determined how many planes would go to what cities -- not surprisingly, there were very frequent flights from Washington to the airports nearest the congressional districts of members who oversaw CAB's work). The result was cheaper airfares, higher passenger volume, and a revolution in transport. American airlines demanded manufacturers take the opposite direction from the Europeans -- rather than build faster planes with higher ticket prices, American technology was put in service of building planes that would serve more people at a lower cost.

Gimpel did not understand that the American reluctance to invest billions of taxpayer dollars in a plane that middle class Americans -- average taxpayers -- could not afford to fly in was not a sign of decline, but rather one of democratic vigor.

Posted by Ideofact at October 26, 2003 11:28 PM