Flying has become so commonplace that we take it almost entirely for granted. There are now 100,000 commercial flights a day around the planet, and at any given time there are a million people in the air. In ten days that’s a million flights. Not incidentally, all these flights, of course, are constantly spewing a prodigious tonnage of exhaust into our thin and fragile atmosphere along with a billion terrestrial vehicles, an unprecedented fact noted by more than a few scientists trying to warn us of inexorable global warming.
The daily consumption of aviation fuel, in fact, is staggering. So much that tanker truck transport from refineries to major airports is far too costly and impractical, so pipelines do the job. Raleigh Durham Airport 100 miles inland from my home is served by the same jet fuel pipeline that supplies Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, which handles 275,000 passengers a day on 1,000 flights using their five runways. It’s the biggest airport in the world, serving every major carrier and a flock of minor ones. The terminal buildings alone cover 156 acres in seven concourses housing a total of 192 gates and 263 concessions--restaurants and snack shops and retail outlets. The speedy underground train that connects the concourses whisks 200,000 people daily. There are 30,000 public parking spaces. The rental car complex covers 68 acres and the cargo warehouses take up another 30 acres. Baggage handling is extremely complex, of course; it’s a miracle they can handle it all so efficiently and reliably. It takes 63,000 people to keep this one vast airport pulsing, not including pilots and crews.
Facts concerning the flights themselves are equally interesting. In an airliner on the takeoff roll you're doing at least 160 mph before the wheels leave the ground. Most flights cruise at five or six miles high where the temperature six inches from your nose in a window seat is often 50 F below zero and you're doing 500 to 600 miles per hour or about 80 percent of the speed of sound. (In the year I was born airline companies boasted of astonishing speeds up to 200 mph.) Most of the background noise you're hearing in flight is not the engines but is simple wind rush past the fuselage and wings and control surfaces. At cruise the cabins are pressurized but not to a full atmosphere. That’s to extend the life of the fuselage by cutting down on the considerable expansive force of each pressurization, and it's a reason many people go to sleep during a flight.
Flying is statistically quite safe, of course. Yet the occasional crash that kills a few hundred people gets wide notoriety, while some 40,000 annual motor vehicle deaths and 4.5 million injuries in America alone get little media notice at all; we simply tolerate it. In 18 months, more people die on American highways than died in a decade of Vietnam, yet there is no memorial to them. Some 5,000 people are dying on our roads every year now because of cell phone use alone, yet nobody seems to give a damn. There are no protests, no interminable congressional debates, no outraged articles in the The New Yorker. At the recent North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh the state police had a BMW on display that was almost crushed into a ball in a 60-mph collision that killed a 17-year-old girl who was on her cell at the time. People shook their heads at the gruesome sight but I'm betting most forgot it before the day was done and many used their cells on their drives home.
So, buying an airline ticket--despite the minor TSA hassle and the contribution to global air pollution--rather than slogging to your distant destination through the high-stress mayhem on our highways, is often well worth the cost. It might even save your life.