Christopher Schaberg, CC BY-SA
Amelia Earhart broke a transcontinental speed record 90 years ago, in July 1933, by flying her signature red Lockheed Vega from Los Angeles to New Jersey in just 17 hours, seven and a half minutes. Earlier that year, Earhart had flown as an observer on a Northwest Airways winter flight across the U.S., testing the possibilities of a “Northern Transcontinental” route.
Because those early airplanes couldn’t reach high altitudes, they weaved through dangerous peaks and the erratic weather patterns that mountain ranges helped create. One co-pilot remembers the journey as “seat-of-the-pants flying across the Dakota and Montana plains and through, over and around the Western mountain ranges.”
How does air travel today compare?
Long-distance flight advanced rapidly between the 1930s and the early 1960s, shaving off the number of hours in the sky by half. But over the past 60 years, the duration of such flights has remained roughly the same. Meanwhile, the ecosystem of air travel has grown more elaborate, often leaving passengers squirming in their seats on the tarmac before or after flight.
Coast-to-coast air travel is in a rut – but there are still efforts to improve this mode of transit.
Just another ordinary miracle
Transcontinental air journeys are clearly different 90 years after Earhart’s record-breaking exploratory flights: Travelers now take such trips for granted, and often find them to be pure drudgery.
In 2018, travel blogger Ravi Ghelani reviewed in minute detail a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Seattle – roughly the same northern route that Earhart explored in 1933.
But for Ghelani, seated in first class, it wasn’t the terrain or frigid temperatures that were the most cumbersome part of his adventure. It was a cheap complimentary blanket, which “barely qualified as one – it was very thin, very scratchy.”
The dreaded blanket reappears in Ghelani’s summary of his trip: “My main qualm with this flight was the lack of a decent blanket – the tiny, scratchy blanket that was provided wasn’t cutting it for the six-hour flight.”
I can imagine Earhart rolling in her watery grave: “You zip across the continent in six hours and you complain about a scratchy blanket?”
Yet Ghelani’s account of a mundane cross-country flight reveals a truth: Commercial air travel just isn’t the adventure it was back in Earhart’s time.
As one captain of a major U.S. airline who regularly flies long routes told me, “Today jetliners fly across the country from Los Angeles to New York, or Boston to Seattle, full of passengers oblivious to the commonplace practice it has become.”
This pilot compared coast-to-coast flights to “iPhones, microwaves or automobiles” – just one more ordinary miracle of modern life.
Little indignities multiply
The high-risk adventure of air travel has been subdued, yet long flights today can paradoxically feel torturous.
As philosopher Michael Marder puts it in his 2022 book “Philosophy for Passengers”: “When crew members wish passengers a ‘pleasant journey,’ I hear a dash of cruel irony in their words. How pleasant can the passenger experience be when you are crammed in your seat, with little fresh air, too hot or miserably cold, and sleep deprived?”
I asked my colleague and frequent flier Ian Bogost about his experience of coast-to-coast trips, and his reply was illuminating: “The same trip seems to get longer every year, and less comfortable. There are reasons – consolidation, reduced routes, pilot and air-traffic labor shortages, decaying technical infrastructure – but it still feels like moving backwards.” In spite of widespread attempts to update aircraft and modernize terminals, the vast system of air travel can seem cumbersome and outdated.
Recently at The Atlantic, reporter Amanda Mull wrote about the biometric screening company Clear, describing this firm’s high-tech service to skip the ubiquitous toil of identity checks before flight, at the cost of surrendering some privacy and personal information. Mull concludes the reason more travelers will likely enroll in this service is that “traversing American airport security is simply that grim.”
For Mull, the adventure of contemporary air travel isn’t the destination, or even the journey itself – it’s what you must do to get through the airport.
Still, it’s worth noting that the majority of the human population has never boarded an airplane; flying cross-country remains a relatively exclusive experience. For most people, the closest they’ll get to a coast-to-coast flight is seeing a small white scratch across the sky, as another airliner makes its arc at 35,000 feet.
2 futures of cross-country flight
Coast-to-coast travel is no longer about breakneck speed or defying elemental odds, and Earhart’s quests to push the limits of aviation couldn’t be further from the bland routines of contemporary air travel. Nor does it involve people dressing to the hilt to step aboard a jetliner for the first time, with passengers stowing their fancy hats in spacious overhead bins.
Where are the new frontiers for transcontinental flight today?
One area of innovation is in a greener form of flight. Solar Impulse, a completely solar-powered plane, took two months to fly coast-to-coast in 2013. It averages a plodding 45 mph at cruising altitude. As The Associated Press reported: “Solar Impulse’s creators view themselves as green pioneers – promoting lighter materials, solar-powered batteries, and conservation as sexy and adventurous. Theirs is the high-flying equivalent of the Tesla electric sports car.” Solar Impulse was more recently reconfigured as a remotely piloted aircraft, with new experiments in long-distance solar flight underway.
The comparison of Solar Impulse to a Tesla is handy because a different extreme can be found in Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. As part of the relentless development of its biggest vehicle, “Starship,” SpaceX has advertised the possibility of “point-to-point” travel on Earth: for example, flying on a commercial rocket from Los Angeles to New York in 25 minutes. Never mind the physical tolls of a normal 19-hour flight; it’s hard to imagine what such a brief yet fast trip would feel like, not to mention what sort of class divisions and bleak industrial launch sites such jaunts would rely on.
Get there as fast as possible, using as much fuel as necessary; or glide lazily along, powered by the sun, saving the planet. These are two starkly different visions of coast-to-coast flight, one a dystopian nightmare and the other a utopian dream.
In the middle, there’s what most flying mortals do: wait in lines, board unceremoniously and be relieved if you get to your destination without too much discomfort or delay.
Christopher Schaberg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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