France and its flying taxis
France considers plan to ban short-haul domestic airline travel: The parliament approved a rule to abolish short flights that could also be made by rail in less than 2.5 hours, as part of a broader bill about climate change.
■ Assuming that the "distance" tool on Google Maps is telling the truth, all points within mainland France are within 700 miles of one another...as the crow flies. But the road trip from Brest (in the northwest) to Nice (in the southeast) is almost 900 miles long, suggesting that there's some meaningful inefficiency in getting around the country via overland methods.
■ France does possess a high-speed rail option: the famed TGV. As a representative trip, the TGV will get you from Brest to Paris much faster than driving (perhaps 6 hours by road and 4.5 by rail), but it'll still take much longer than 2.5 hours. That's for a distance of a little over 300 miles as the crow flies -- but more like 370 by road.
■ Thus it's hard to see how the proposal banning shorter flights would be massively restrictive. Marginally, yes, it would prohibit flights that presumably might be plausible for commercial flights. But it's likely not the kind of restriction that has much practical effect: By the Brest-to-Paris metric, the climate-related rule would only do away with trips shorter than about 175 miles. Thus, a flight from Des Moines to Omaha would be prohibited by law, but not from Des Moines to Minneapolis. At that stage, the real constraint is whether it's worth one's time to bother driving to the airport, parking, checking in, passing through security, and being there sufficiently in advance of the flight to board...and then wait.
■ France's high-speed rail network is pretty enticing -- but it appears to serve most effectively as a way to get to and from Paris. It's a hub-and-spoke model on steroids. The rest of the country is well-connected, but by slower service. Extending rail networks (especially for high-speed service) is expensive and slow work.
■ What could be interesting, though, is if the French idea ends up fueling demand in the market for electric-based air travel. Oh, yes, that day is coming. And if it facilitates the arrival of flying taxis, then so much the better. It's not as far-fetched as you might think: If we can de-carbonize air travel with battery-powered electric flight, things could change quickly for the better. Long-haul electric flight may be far outside the capacity of current technology, but short-haul electric flights have already been conducted.
■ If generated from clean sources, electricity can be quite green (we already know how to get to zero-carbon using nuclear and renewables) -- and electric motors are much simpler than combustion engines, which means less complexity and less demand for complicated maintenance. This is why serious companies like Airbus are working on small electric aircraft already. And if air taxis can fly in and out of small, under-utilized airports that already exist (like the 98 general-aviation airports in Iowa alone) and bypass the massive deadweight of security theater associated with airline travel today, their time advantages over road and rail could add up in a hurry.
■ Keep an eye on France: It might be just the right market to prove whether air taxis will be the ride of the future.