Why You Hate Air Travel Less Than You Think

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 1:30 PM EST

How much technological progress have we made since 1973? I don't want to drive this question into the ground, but Matt Yglesias makes a point about air travel that bears scrutiny:

Today’s planes are, in fact, technologically superior to the planes of yore. But the travel experience has been made much worse by massive over-investment in airplane security. Inefficient pricing of runway space leads to lots of problems.

True. And yet, which would you take, 1973 or 2011? It's 2011 by a landslide. Fifty years ago, the technological improvement we all expected was faster airplanes. We didn't get that. What we got instead was way cheaper and more abundant flights thanks to deregulation and the computer revolution, which made capacity management far more effective than in the past. One of the results of all this has been crowded flights and crowded airports, and of course increased security has made the flying experience less pleasant too. Still, taken as a whole, I'd say that the airline industry has made tremendous progress since 1973. It just hasn't been where we expected it to be.

Also of interest: the contribution of the airline industry to GDP probably hasn't changed an awful lot since 1973. But its contribution to the increased wellbeing of the median person has increased tremendously. In 1973, the average schmoe simply never flew: it was too expensive and flights weren't always very convenient. Today, nearly anyone can afford to fly at least occasionally. So this is one area where pure measures of GDP probably understate the benefit to the median person. People who are already rich would prefer faster planes, but people who aren't would simply prefer planes they can afford. And that's what we got.

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