Why fly?

I hate flying. There’s driving to the airport, then looking for a parking space, then airport security, (some tickets even require you to get a boarding pass at the airport), then waiting in a slow moving line to board the plane, then sitting in a tiny seat for 20 minutes before the plane actually takes off, then a bumpy ride, then waiting a long time to get off the plane. You might even have been forced to put your carry on bag in the luggage section at the last minute, requiring you to wait at baggage claim.  

I love trains. They are smooth and spacious and comfortable, at least if you live outside the US.  So will someone explain the following to me:

Moritz Leiner, a representative of the Association of Ethical Shareholders Germany, urged Lufthansa to reconsider its climate-change policy, pointing out that the company operates four daily flights from Munich to Nuremberg, two cities that are only a two-hour drive apart.

The driving time seems like an odd comparison, so I goggled some train data for Munich to Nuremberg:








So there are 55 trains a day, with an average time of 1:20 and the fastest at 1:02. I understand why people fly when the cities are far apart. But why do people take short flights? Can someone explain what I’m missing? It seems like low hanging fruit for the fight against global warming. And I’m not even a fan of high speed rail boondoggles in places like California. But what about where you already have decent train service? Why fly?

PS. I’m usually sitting around row 37. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if every passenger in front of me was a Navy Seal. How long would it take them to stand up, grab their carry-on and walk off the &$#*@&$ plane. The actual humanity in front of me takes forever, exhibiting an especially annoying mix of selfishness and clumsiness.



41 Responses to “Why fly?”

  1. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    7. May 2019 at 15:49

    There are 2 things I wonder about in the case of the Munich to Nuremberg flights. First, what percentage of the passengers originated in Munich? It wouldn’t surprise me if many of the passengers started their journey at some other major city in the EU. But there were no direct flights to Nuremberg from their starting point. Sure, they could go from the airport to the train station in Munich. But that may take considerable time or unfamiliarity of the options may be a deterrent. Second, what is the cost of the Munich to Nuremberg flights compared to the trains? Lufthansa may need to transition some planes from Munich to Nuremberg on a daily basis to have sufficient planes there for departing flights from that location. And it would prefer to at least recoup some of the cost from passengers and offers a very competitive fare.

  2. Gravatar of Ironman Ironman
    7. May 2019 at 19:31

    Per Lufthansa, the flights aren’t aimed at domestic travelers so much as they are targeted to passengers making international connections.


    To me, it looks like Nuremberg’s airport is being treated like a satellite field for Munich – it is just farther away than what most airports are in the large cities served by multiple airports.

  3. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    7. May 2019 at 20:28


    for the Munich / Nuremberg case, what Ironman and Gordon said – probably not aimed at standalone travel but as a feeder service. But overall your point stands. Train service is a lot more convenient when done right than air travel, not the least because it tends to go from city center to city center, with “feeder” stops in the suburbs, and much less of the grotesque hassle of airport security and logistics. And the energy costs / CO2 emissions are a fraction of what airplanes do.

    That being said, as you know, train travel is often not done right, because of historical baggage with nationalisation and labour relations, or inefficiencies tin historical routes and train stations (Europe) – and the difficulty of building new routes (US). That’s why airplanes even had a chance in short to medium distance passenger transport.

  4. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    7. May 2019 at 21:04


    A few points.

    1. I love traveling by train.

    2. If you’re willing to pay, plane travel is exceptionally comfortable and hassle free…much better than any train unless you have a private car. Don’t buy cheap plane tickets and then complain about the service.

    3. HSR is uneconomical virtually everywhere. Tokyo to Osaka trains run at every 5 minutes at peak and carry 1500 people per train. NYC to DC trains run twice an hour and carry a few hundred. Add in air capacity and demand on the busiest US route, and it’s still 1/10th of the Tokyo Osaka route.

    4. The Tokyo Osaka route barely makes money despite a very low cost of capital and nearly fully depreciated cost of the lines.

    5. Driverless buses using the existing road infrastructure, may become prevalent.

    6. Amtrak can’t get the escalators in Penn Station in NYC to operate reliably. You think they can run an actual railway? I would be stunned by that question if I could stop laughing and get off the floor.

    7. HSR will NEVER EVER be economical or successful in the U.S.

    8. Consumers are rationale, they will take rail or car if it’s cheaper or faster.

    9. As others have pointed out most of the NUE > MUC traffic is not O/D it’s connecting.

    10. In answer to your questions about Navy seals…. go to Japan. It takes about 7 minutes for the entire plane to board and 3 minutes to get off.

  5. Gravatar of Seo Sanghyeon Seo Sanghyeon
    7. May 2019 at 22:12

    > The Tokyo Osaka route barely makes money despite a very low cost of capital and nearly fully depreciated cost of the lines.

    dtoh, JR Central, which operates Tokaido Shinkansen (the name of HSR between Tokyo and Osaka), is a public company. Their IR(Investor Relations) website is https://global.jr-central.co.jp/en/company/ir/annualreport/.

    Reading their 2018 Annual Report, page 58, Consolidated Statement of Income, JR Central made >$3.6 billion, from >$17.1 billion revenue. That’s >20% profitability.

  6. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    8. May 2019 at 01:08


    Yes on paper. But that’s because they bought all their infrastructure at a price that was way below market and paid for it with a loan on terms that were below market. It’s the same cheat TGV uses to appear profitable. Unlike airlines the cost of rail is largely in the infrastructure. Essentially they get a huge tax payer subsidy. If their accounting even remotely mirrored economic reality they would not be making money.

  7. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    8. May 2019 at 01:12

    > There’s driving to the airport […]

    In some parts of the world you can even take the train to the airport!

  8. Gravatar of kav kav
    8. May 2019 at 01:45

    The good thing is we have quiet a bit of near experimental data from WEU. One example I can think of is AMS/BRU/CDG. Air France stopped operating BRU-CDG many years ago (275 km as the crow flies). However, a subsidiary of the same airline (KLM) still operates regular flights between AMS and BRU (200 km apart). All three airports have train stations under them. KLM’s position is that this short connection is uneconomical but is being kept by popular demand from connecting passengers.

  9. Gravatar of aram aram
    8. May 2019 at 02:06

    There are flights from Lansing to Detroit airport, only 90 miles away. Often adding this leg to a flight costs $0 or even reduces the cost. This is probably because of the heavy subsidies from the county.

    There is a comfortable bus that does the same trip which the Detroit airport cannot legally stop, although they try hard to conceal its existence by putting up zero signs for it.

  10. Gravatar of Left Outside Left Outside
    8. May 2019 at 02:55

    It is probably people on international connections who cannot make the direct flight to Nuremberg or who are leaving from Nuremberg via Munich to somewhere.

    It is possible to connect trains and planes – get out it Munich go through passport, collect luggage, get on train to Nuremberg – but it is very difficult because of 1) the security, luggage,and passport checks and 2) they run on totally parallel IT systems.

    The Airline Distribution system really is a marvel, all (almost) the flights around the world all using the same reference system and plugging into the same data sources and outputting in mutually usable forms. Trains do not do this. The train ticket systems are really, really dumb because they don’t need to be all that clever.

    Also planes tend to be next to one another and Nuremberg station is 7km from Nuremberg airport. So you would need extra railway spurs and brand new globally interfaceable ticketing systems.

    Sadly this is all expensive and unlikely to happen in most places.

  11. Gravatar of BC BC
    8. May 2019 at 03:33

    Nice example of a Chesterton’s Fence.

  12. Gravatar of derek derek
    8. May 2019 at 05:23

    Short flights like that are mainly because of hubs. Sure, you could perhaps easily drive or train a couple hours to the nearest big hub, but it sucks to drive home a long ways after your stressful flight experience. Also, ground transportation out of train stations is often not convenient, ironically enough.

  13. Gravatar of Bob Bob
    8. May 2019 at 06:06

    I love good trains too. Germany’s are great. I used to go there often, and I learned that the best way to go was fly into Frankfurt or Munich and then take a train the rest of the way, even to Berlin. The feeling of getting off of the plane and rolling your luggage to the train is liberating. However, their train service was extremely inefficient. Most of the cars were 80% empty. Apparently there is a stigma against varying the schedules by demand. My guess is they don’t need 55 trains per day. Someone is paying for that and it isn’t the ticket holder.

  14. Gravatar of Charles Fox Charles Fox
    8. May 2019 at 09:05

    @dtoh, “7. HSR will NEVER EVER be economical or successful in the U.S.”


  15. Gravatar of AWS AWS
    8. May 2019 at 09:50

    I used to travel for business living near Milwaukee and would quite often connect through Chicago, a 90 minute drive from Milwaukee and maybe 20 minutes in the air. The purpose was never to get to/from Chicago, it was always a connection to somewhere else which I suspect is what is going on with Nuremberg/Munich. I could have driven down to Chicago, and often did, but that experience was significantly more stressful. Traffic jams on the way to the airport, parking no where near the terminals requiring a tram ride, long lines, huge crowds, long walks to the gate, etc. Milwaukee was an easy drive, could walk from parking to the terminal, short lines, sparse crowds, etc. So if the price was comparable I often chose the lower-stress option of the MKE–>ORD–>??? connection.

    What would have been FANTASTIC, though, is a train from Milwaukee to Chicago O’Hare that dropped me off right at the airport.

  16. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    8. May 2019 at 10:12


    So I think basically a few reasons.

    First – Compared to air where operating costs dominate, rail requires extremely expensive infrastructure so you need a route which has extremely high traffic to pay for the cost of the infrastructure. Basically two major concentrations of population and commerce which are 200 to 400 miles apart. There are very few places on the planet which meet these conditions. The US Eastern corridor is the closest in the US, but even best case, it only generates 1/5 of the traffic of the Tokyo Osaka corridor, and the cost of land acquisition for straightening the lines, eliminating crossings, and getting rid of rail freight traffic would be astronomical. The other potential route is SAN LAX SFO but again there is insufficient traffic and the distance is too great to compete with air.

    Second – Security. If you have high speed rail with 1000+ passengers per train, you need TSA like security along the entire rail line. Nobody thinks about this but it would be prohibitively expensive.

    Third – The US government is not very good at getting trains to run on time. Perhaps you could privatize but still a challenge. Look at the efficiency of Japan’s rail system and then try to envision that ever being replicated in the U.S. It’s very discouraging.

    Fourth – Air continues to become increasingly competitive, and there’s potential competition from high speed automated buses which would not require significant infrastructure investment.

    All that said, I do think there is some potential to substantially improve our current passenger rail system, but it probably requires government subsidies to upgrade the infrastructure and complete privatization of the operating companies.

    I love rail travel. Unfortunately I don’t think it will happen in the U.S. unless we can substantially reduce the cost of the energy required for tunneling, in which case you could reduce the cost of the infrastructure and mitigate the security issues.

  17. Gravatar of Carl Carl
    8. May 2019 at 10:15

    Charles Fox:

    Here’s a very good article on the reasons: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/03/11/why-doesnt-the-united-states-have-high-speed-bullet-trains-like-europe-and-asia/#1423beedc080.

    It boils down to density and property rights.

  18. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    8. May 2019 at 10:34

    Everyone, Yes, I overlooked the feeder flight aspect.

    dtoh, Obviously I agree on Amtrak, I’d privatize it tomorrow. The US is not well suited for train travel.

    I’d prefer train travel to business class flights.

    I also agree that the Japanese are far more competent in groups than we are. Their train stations are jaw dropping efficient at rush hour.

    BC, Yup.

  19. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    8. May 2019 at 10:56

    You said, I’d prefer train travel to business class. Are you talking domestic business class or international business class with flat bed seating?

    Train and air are little hard to compare. No one takes 6000 mile train journeys (except by business partner.)

    For short trips trains are pretty sweet but the seats are nowhere near as nice as the good seats available on long haul flights.

  20. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    8. May 2019 at 11:34

    “I also agree that the Japanese are far more competent in groups than we are. Their train stations are jaw dropping efficient at rush hour.”

    Scott, when you were in Tokyo, did you notice how rare it was to see a baby stroller or children under three on a train?

  21. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    8. May 2019 at 13:09

    Everyone, Yes, I overlooked the feeder flight aspect.

    You talk about Germoney? Why did nobody call me? Yes, it’s the feeder flight aspect.

    Nuremberg – Munich is actually a recurring debate issue in Germany every few months, because the Green Party wants to completely ban all flights of this kind.

    But the flight is not nearly as bad as it looks. You only calculated the route Nuremberg to Munich. But the relevant route is Nuremberg airport to Munich airport of course.

    The German media has calculated this already. There is no good train connection between the airports. The travel time (by train) would be about 3 hours. The train journey from Munich to Munich Airport alone takes longer than the flight Nuremberg to Munich.

    A few years ago, they wanted to build the fastest train connection in the world: A high-speed monorail train using magnetic levitation from Munich City to Munich Airport.

    Guess who has prevented this project by any means? The German Green Party, of course. This is the typical leftwing agenda of our time.

    I take Trump over the Green Party (and all the other leftist junk) every single day.

  22. Gravatar of Viking Viking
    8. May 2019 at 14:22

    I loved reading this, it is like I could have written it myself:

    “PS. I’m usually sitting around row 37. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if every passenger in front of me was a Navy Seal. How long would it take them to stand up, grab their carry-on and walk off the &$#*@&$ plane. The actual humanity in front of me takes forever, exhibiting an especially annoying mix of selfishness and clumsiness. ”

    Now tell me how you feel about the average American’s behavior in parking lots, and narrow grocery store aisles! On top of that, lately, store managers keep adding pallets of crap in the most inopportune locations, and Costco will have their contractors offering free samples during the busiest part of the week.

  23. Gravatar of Luis Pedro Coelho Luis Pedro Coelho
    8. May 2019 at 18:39

    Because the Deutsche Bahn is unable to run their trains on time and taking a train to the airport is an incredibly stress inducing experience. So if you are in Nuremberg and the alternatives are (1) short flight to Munich, connection to destination or (2) train to Munich; then (1) is a much more relaxing experience.

  24. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    9. May 2019 at 00:10

    Market competition?Fixed cost? Sometimes I take a airplane to Osaka to Tokyo despite of there is 2 hours Shinkansen.(Bullet train).

    Airplane tickets are sometimes very cheap at slack period. While Shinkansen’s ticket price is almost non-elastic (and high-price) because of government regulation. 

  25. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    9. May 2019 at 00:54

    despite of → although

  26. Gravatar of Anders Larsen Anders Larsen
    9. May 2019 at 07:07

    With regards the feasibility of high speed rail, we should remember that at one point flights will need to be phased out or at least really heavily taxed if we want to stop global warning to stop most people from flying. And to my best of knowledge it is completely unrealistic we will have clean flying within the next 20-30 years if ever. But as people get richer they want to travel more…. which leaves… high speed rail the only realistic possibility!

  27. Gravatar of Matthew McOsker Matthew McOsker
    9. May 2019 at 07:30

    Funny you posted this, I just watched this video yesterday:

    China probably has high speed trains because the government can tell anyone that opposes the train (environmental lawsuits etc.) to go pound sand. Not so in the US. Note in the video two private projects in Florida and Texas.

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. May 2019 at 09:39

    Todd. No, but I recall an old lady gave up her seat for me. I was walking with a cane.

    I felt like George, on Seinfeld.

    Viking. There are times in parking lots when I want to kill people. When they stop to wait forever for someone to back out, so that they don’t have to walk an extra 100 feet.

  29. Gravatar of SeaMoney SeaMoney
    9. May 2019 at 16:32

    Dtoh You said:

    “The US Eastern corridor is the closest in the US, but even best case, it only generates 1/5 of the traffic of the Tokyo Osaka corridor, and the cost of land acquisition for straightening the lines, eliminating crossings, and getting rid of rail freight traffic would be astronomical.”

    Only if you’re paying inflated US prices. It can be done for a reasonable cost if politicians actually cared to do it.

  30. Gravatar of Dan Culley Dan Culley
    10. May 2019 at 00:55

    Regarding subway efficiency, it still blows my mind that in the US we pay the exorbitant extra costs of building stations that are four times larger than in any other country, yet we fail to do the one useful thing all that space allows: having passengers board and get off on platforms that are on opposite sides of the train. One need only see the numerous airport trains that do this to see how much better it works, especially when the side to get off opens a few seconds earlier.

  31. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    10. May 2019 at 01:24


    I think it unlikely that politicians could do it, so that seems like a non-starter.

    That said, even if politicians could do it, the cost would still be astronomical….where you didn’t need underground track for right away or noise abatement, you would mostly need elevated track. On top of that, there would be significant land acquisition cost. Even though the federal government owns most of the track on the Northeast corridor, you would need significant additional land because freight and HSR can run on the same tracks.

  32. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    10. May 2019 at 01:27

    Dan Culley
    Tokyo has the one of the busiest subway stations in the world. Except for terminal stations, only one set of doors open. Why would two sides be needed in the U.S.

  33. Gravatar of Ryan Ryan
    10. May 2019 at 04:16

    The reason people prefer to fly is to save time. In the U.S., its not profitable unless the government subsidizes the industry. In Europe, its just faster to take the plane, and if your rich and money is no obstacle, then you will always prefer the plane to the train. There is also a stigma associated with train travel in that its primarily used by lower class citizens, who cannot fork over a $100 for a flight. Not many professionals want to be around smelly and often times “extremely obese” American and british gap year students on a train as they prepare for a business meeting. Sorry if that seems a bit rude, but its the truth, and its what most Europeans would say in private or at the dinner with family.

  34. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    10. May 2019 at 06:55

    Every once in a while Scott goes off the rails (:-)) and casually reveals what he has forgotten by asking a seemingly innocent question. If he had not thrown in the Climate Change trope I would have left this alone.

    Basics—-America travels by car and plane—and in big cities commutes by cars and trains. Why? Population density. Continental US is 24 times the size of Germany and 4 times the population. Germany would be the 5th most dense state–(like Maryland but with 15 times the population and about 15 times the size). Japan’s Honshu Island has 80% of Japan’s population (103 mil), has the density of New Jersey–1200 per square mile—(number 1 in US) and is the size of Minnesota.

    I too would prefer to travel by high speed train with convenient schedules. But as California has proven, we are not the ideal country for this kind of travel.

  35. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. May 2019 at 10:07

    I agree with Michael Rulle. The current versions of high speed trains are not the solution for the US. They don’t even work in dense states like Germany, despite billions of subsidies each year. Not to mention that trains and railway tracks are extremely expensive.

    It’s nice to dream of cheap infrastructure (as Scott always does), but in truth, the exact opposite is happening for years. We have an ever increasing army of unions, NIMBYs, Greens, lawyers, bureaucrats, and other blowflies. Therefore there’s only one direction: infrastructure is getting more expensive and more expensive. The problem on the ground won’t get smaller but rather bigger.

    Forget about trains. At long distances air travel will remain the best solution; and who knows maybe it will even be the future at short distances, for example with air taxis.

    The *only* problem is the engine, based on fossil fuels. But this problem is solvable. Essentially, the problem is already solved, *only* scaling and cost reductions are missing.

  36. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    10. May 2019 at 11:40

    Michael Rulle,

    Excellent post. I would add only a couple of things.

    1. Unlike Jersey, Japan is not flat so it’s effective population density is 3 times that of New Jersey.

    2. It’t not just density, it’s also distribution. For HSR to work, you need a bipolar distribution…. two big population centers (ideally 25 million people each) located 500 to 700km apart (depending on train speed.)

    3. In Japan, the right of way for the lines was acquired when the country was dirt poor. At today’s land prices, the cost of the right of way would probably be a multiple of the country’s annual GDP.

    Christian List,
    1. IMHO higher speed automated buses (labor is 70% of current operating costs) are a definite possibility and they use the existing infrastructure.

    2. If we electrify everything else with non-fossil fuel sources, aircraft emissions become a relatively small problem.

  37. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    10. May 2019 at 12:57


    I agree that autonomous cars / buses on existing roads could be the future – together with air travel.

    The engine technology is still a bit unclear, maybe electric motors, maybe hydrogen, maybe both. Or even something completely different.

    What I do not see are railways. Rails are indeed extremely expensive and they make even less sense once there is autonomous driving and new engines. The US has so many roads already, there won’t be any new tracks, at least not in a relevant way.

  38. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    10. May 2019 at 14:08


    They can probably fix up the existing lines/services a bit, but agree rail is not really in the US future, which is a bummer because it’s a wonderful way to travel.

  39. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. May 2019 at 15:53

    Christian and Michael Rulle, I said:

    “And I’m not even a fan of high speed rail boondoggles in places like California.”

    If you want to be taken seriously here, you might read my posts before commenting.

    I guess that’s too much to expect.

  40. Gravatar of Justin Irving Justin Irving
    13. May 2019 at 11:57

    There must be plenty of chartered flights every year composed entirely of combat arms solders. Probably some entirely of elite troops such as the SEALs, Delta Force et c. It’d be interesting to see how quickly they can clear out of a 737. It’s ridiculous how selfish and oblivious your typical able-bodied airline passenger is. Stand up, grab your bag, maybe help your kid and then start walking, not hard.

  41. Gravatar of Steven Kopits Steven Kopits
    14. May 2019 at 07:32

    It has to do with marketing as well.

    If you’re flying from, say, New York to Nuremberg, you’re going to punch in those origin and destination airports, and Lufthansa wants to make sure it gets that long-haul business.

    You could prohibit it, but then you’d see people flying to Nuremberg through Frankfurt, or Zurich or even London. So there is underlying demand for air service to Nuremberg, and Lufthansa meets it because that’s what the market wants.

    I’d add that I used to hub-and-spoke through Munich to Budapest, and I have also flown to Frankfurt and taken the train from there to other parts of Germany. When you’re coming off a trans-Atlantic flight, you’re usually tired. You don’t want to mess with a local railway service that you don’t understand. So instead you transit through the hub — Munich in this case — to your final destination, and either pick up your car or take a cab from there. Much easier to do in a brain-dead state in a foreign country you don’t know well.

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