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Travelling by air with my family recently, holding my shoes one hand and my belt in the other, I jokingly asked the security guard busily inspecting our stroller if my two-year-old needed to take her shoes off.

She does, I was told.

That was when I started seriously rethinking the benefits of air travel.

After losing big on U.S. Air, Warren Buffet wryly noted that airlines had not made a dime for investors in a century of manned flight.

Taxpayers pour money into airlines to operate state carriers, subsidize low-demand domestic routes, build and maintain airports, and keep bankrupt companies afloat.

Passengers stomach outrageous ticket prices.

The environment pays outrageously both in climate change impact and excessive oil demand.

In return, we get overbooked flights, delays, long lines, humiliating examinations, unpalatable food, leg cramps, tiny washrooms, turbulence, scary landings into foggy runways, lost baggage, dismal trudges through the Park-N-Fly lot, and the general delight of getting to and from a remote airport in rush hour.


Why as a society have we decided to build a massive, expensive infrastructure around domestic air travel when short-haul rail is often faster and cheaper?

Obviously, there are situations in which air travel makes sense. Travel from the Canadian hinterland to population centres is unfeasible or days-long without air travel. International flights are far faster than ground-based methods like ships.

But city-centre to city-centre air travel from Toronto to Montreal, taking Pearson to Dorval, is slower than a high-speed rail link would be.

In fact, any journey under 650 kilometres is faster by rail than air, due to the excessive delays surrounding the flight. It is only when the journey is longer than 650 km that air travel's higher speeds begin to win out. And this number is constantly growing as rail gets faster.

At the same time, air travel is more harmful to the environment than rail. In fact, air travel is the fastest growing contributor to climate change.

Adding to the disagreeable nature of air travel is the bizarre exercise of airport security.

The increased measures - from shoe inspections to prohibitions on gels and liquids - make air travel about as enjoyable as a proctological exam.

In the post 9/11 world, domestic business travelers - increasingly irritated by hassles in security and the resulting delayed and missed flights - deteriorated as a revenue stream for the airlines.

This exacerbated the longstanding unprofitability of airlines and cemented their general status as corporate welfare bums.

This unprofitability leads to new and improved unpleasant experiences in domestic air travel, like overbooking on the few profitable runs.

The only explanation I have for all this madness is a scene in Catch Me If You Can in which Leonardo DiCaprio's character poses as a PanAm pilot because of the glamour associated with air travel in the 1960s.

Perhaps we are still living the hangover from that pipe dream of freedom the airlines sold us then.

But we seem to be finally shaking off our collective Sunday morning blues.

President Obama envisions the creation of "high-speed rail corridors across the country linking regional population centres" and invested $5-billion in his recent budget to begin that process.

Canadians are currently examining several options for high-speed or improved rail, including Calgary-to-Edmonton via Red Deer and Vancouver to Seattle.

However, the obvious spot for high-speed rail is the Windsor to Quebec City corridor.

Currently, the federal, Quebec and Ontario governments are undertaking a $2-million feasibility study of high-speed rail in the corridor.

Further connections to the Ohio Hub and the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative would add Chicago, New York City and Philidephia, along with regional centres like Pittsburg and Dayton, to the links.

Maybe, just maybe, we can all stop the insanity that is air travel, and decide that it makes more sense to get from place to place like civilized folks for a change.

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