Want To Disrupt Air Travel? Watch For the Rent-Seekers

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Yahoo News reports that a trial Vacuum Maglev  Transport System is going to be in trial by the end of 2013. If successful, it might bring cross-continent travel - LA to NY - in 45 minutes, yet be built at a fraction of the cost of a train, let alone an airport.

The big savings compared to trains is the much smaller number of tracks required. You still would need rights-of-way, although vastly reduced weight could allow for more elevation, reducing the impact and acreage of those rights-of-way, but overall requirements should be much cheaper. Compared to airplanes, some of the savings would be from aircrew - who needs two highly trained expensive pilots if an automated system and one crewmember can handle a 45-minute ride - more of the savings from reduced compliance - each of these would have far fewer moving parts and far less to maintain and comply with necessary FAA regulations- but the real savings comes from the airports: miles of tarmacs and runways purchased and their maintenance, air traffic controllers, terminal buildings, TSA personnel, gate agents, the sheer operating expense goes on.

So what's the problem? Besides technical and safety viability, although those may (or may not) be solvable, you are talking about completely disrupting commercial air travel and trains. Hundreds of thousands of people would be out of work, almost all of them members of either airline unions or federal employee unions (TSA, FAA, ATC). The FAA alone has over 45,000 personnel, the TSA over 55,000, over 140,000 airline transport pilot (ATP) certified, nearly 100,000 flight attendants.

While I would personally happily pay twice the cost of an airline ticket to go cross-country in an hour without having to deal with out-of-the-way airports, surly flight attendants, TSA, flight delays and "please turn your Kindle off below 10,000 feet because we have no idea," these nearly half a million (!) employees, quickly to become rent-seekers, will not take the loss of their jobs, prestige and power lying down.

The success or failure of ET3's cleaner, safer, faster, cheaper, more convenient transportation solution will depend on its ability to manage the interests of 314MM diffuse American consumers versus the focused vested interests of a few hundreds thousand.

Of course, doing so is a crucial part of marketing, and in that respect, I hope ET3 gets some help. The most basic marketing activity one can do, the cheapest and easiest, is a solid Web site that gets the message across in an appealing fashion. Web sites are not the end all and be all, but they are a good leading indicator. Let's hope they get some solid marketing skills hired before they take on entrenched industries.