Friday, August 11, 2006

Banned Liquids and Jet Fuel

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me an article on the certification of a new, small passenger jet. He wondered about the energy implications, if they became popular. That question looks more important today, in the aftermath of the latest terrorist plot involving commercial airliners. Some industry experts this morning are predicting that air travel will soon be back to normal, once the initial jitters wear off and passengers adapt to the new security regulations. Others are less sanguine, and I'd put myself in that camp. In the short term, travelers will have to choose between flying, shifting to other modes, or canceling travel entirely, but in the long run, other options may change that calculation.

The last decade has seen steady growth in corporate jet travel, including the proliferation of fractional-ownership schemes and private chartering, such as those offered by NetJet and their competitors. Events such as yesterday's validate the benefits of keeping a firm's top executives and key personnel out of the commercial air travel system, and make expanded corporate access to controlled private jet seats look more attractive. And while personal safety looms large, the key consideration is the savings of time. If typical CEOs are worth $3,000/hour to companies, it doesn't take many hours of routine airport delays--let alone the chaos we saw yesterday--to justify putting them and their teams on their own planes.

Although the new, smaller jets from suppliers such as Honda and Eclipse fit into the context of the "Regional Jet" movement that has made scheduled jet travel more available to smaller communities, it will also reduce the hurdle for corporate private jet travel. That should enable much smaller companies to make the same choice as many Fortune 500 firms, while allowing the latter to push corporate jet travel down to lower layers of their organizations, as both a cost-savings and a perq. Having had the opportunity to travel this way frequently in the mid-1990s, I can attest to the convenience benefits.

The eventual impact of such a shift on jet fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions isn't clear. Small jets are inherently less efficient, per passenger-mile, than large airliners, which average 40-50 pmpg. If they accelerate the existing trend for expansion of air travel, they will put more stress on jet fuel supplies and aviation emissions. But if small-jet travel grows because scheduled airlines become less attractive--as a result of widespread security risks and inconvenience concerns--the effect of any efficiency loss may be swamped by reduced airline fuel consumption, as some travelers simply opt out.

Looking at this from a broader perspective, the situation raises important societal trade-offs. Because of values-driven choices, our response to terror threats has moved us farther down the path toward the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we would be safest flying in our birthday suits. As one industry official put it yesterday, "No system can survive if everyone is treated like Osama bin Laden himself." While security officials can only be praised for their rapid response to a critical threat, in the long run making air travel more spartan than it had already become--with the UK banning even books and magazines from hand luggage--cannot be the solution. Rapid expansion of the TSA Registered Traveler pre-screening program and other passenger-specific approaches look like sensible alternatives for keeping commercial air travel both safe and attractive.

No comments: