Up, Up, and Away

The National Air and Space Museum seems to occupy a precarious position on the Mall in Washington. Not that it is in any danger of disappearing, but it seems to have less of an intellectual pedigree than its neighbors. Art, science, history, anthropology, and–whoa! cool planes and spacecraft! The Smithsonian’s 19 museums have over 21 million visits every year, and a quarter of them go to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s a favorite for families on vacation and school groups on field trips, and is always much more crowded than the sedate galleries nearby. But its new permanent exhibition illustrates that beautiful aircraft and a popular presentation can go hand-in-hand with intellectual rigor.

“America by Air,” which opened in November, records the story of commercial air travel in the United States, from the earliest postal pilots to the new planes just now entering the market. Divided into four historical periods, the exhibition traces three themes: technological innovation, the passenger experience, and the government role in air travel.

The technological development of air travel over the past century is an extraordinary story, and is no better told than with the aircraft hanging in the gallery. The Curtiss JN-4D “Jenny,” a wood-frame biplane that was the first airmail plane, sits low to the ground, visible up close. Other landmark planes include a Ford Tri-Motor, Boeing 247, and Douglas DC-3 and DC-7. The visual heart of “America by Air” is the nose section of a Boeing 747.

Lest anyone dismiss the Air and Space Museum for its lack of art, critic Patrick Smith once called the 747 “a work of high industrial art,” describing its forward bulge as “ris[ing] from the fuselage in a manner that is smoothly integral, tapering forward to a proud and commanding bow, like the stately prow of an ocean liner.” One interactive display shows the mechanical workings of flight controls, from primitive aircraft flown by a simple joystick connected to exposed wires to the hydraulic controls of mid-20th-century jets and the computerized “fly by wire” systems standard today. Technological innovation is explored in plane manufacturing, engines, air traffic control, fuel efficiency, and other aspects of flight.

Technology has had a marked influence on the passenger experience. Early planes were not pressurized, and thus subject to the vagaries of the weather. They could not fly after dark, so transcontinental airline passengers continued on their way by night train. Planes shook and rattled and were incredibly noisy. Their range was often short, meaning that a long trip would require frequent stops.

With every successive innovation came an improvement in the flying experience. But these not-so-pleasant 1920s and ’30s flights were only for the wealthy: Curator Robert van der Linden notes that a cheap cross-country roundtrip airline ticket has cost around $300 for most of the past 75 years. But back then you could buy a new car for $500. The cachet of flying came about because air travel was, for decades, a luxury item. Technological innovation brought the price down until, now, air travel is like riding the bus. In the United States, air travel is even cheaper for long voyages than taking the train. As museum director John Dailey told me, “We hope the public can appreciate what airplanes have done to shrink the world. . . . We’re taking [air travel] for granted.”

“America by Air” acknowledges the government’s role in technology development. The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA’s predecessor) pioneered advanced wings (the “NACA airfoil”) and streamlined engine fittings (the “NACA cowling”). World War II saw the commandeering of air travel for military purposes, but innovations in military aerospace translated into civilian aviation after the war. And from the very start, when passenger service could not break even, the federal government provided crucial support. As with other new transportation and communications technologies–the Butterfield Stage, the transcontinental railroad, the trans-atlantic cable, the Erie Canal–the government undertook the initial investment. And not coincidentally, many of these new technologies had to do with getting the mail through.

Much of “America by Air” is centered on the government’s airmail services–a fascinating story recounted in Robert van der Linden’s own book on the subject. From 1918 to 1925, the Post Office operated its own planes. After that, it offered contracts to private airlines, many of which are the predecessor companies to our current carriers. As more passengers began to fly, regulation emerged to shape the nascent industry.

Herbert Hoover’s postmaster general, Walter Brown, held a conference in 1930–called the “Spoils Conference” by detractors–at which he assigned most airmail contracts to a few big holding companies, which produced and operated airplanes. Brown’s conference stifled competition, but it provided crucial stability and profitability for the young, technology-intensive, industry. Franklin Roosevelt ended up canceling the contracts in 1934 and having the Army Air Corps deliver airmail, which turned out to be so disastrous that, just four months later, Congress passed the Air Mail Act, which restored contracts to airlines but separated the businesses of aerospace and air travel.

The regulation of fares and routes in the 1940s and ’50s remained largely static, but as this exhibition shows, the dramatic social changes of the 1960s led to greater demand for air travel. New planes like the 747 pushed down the costs of air travel, but regulation kept fares artificially high. By 1978, when Congress deregulated the airlines, the industry had long since matured. The exhibit cheerfully acknowledges the benefits of deregulation, but you can detect a nostalgic undercurrent for the more daring, and less businesslike, days of yore.

Chief deregulator Alfred Kahn, displaying an economist’s wit, once commented, “I really don’t know one plane from the other. To me, they are all marginal costs with wings.” And although few people think of their flight to Indianapolis in such terms, the logic of deregulation and competition has probably siphoned off some of the intangible thrill of air travel. Airline deregulation, one of the most economically sensible and consumer-friendly reforms in modern American history, ended the romantic epoch of air travel, a period which crested with government support for and operation of air travel more than 70 years ago.

With the ongoing debates about passengers’ rights, the contribution of jets to climate change, mounting delays, and the poor performance of the Transportation Security Administration, air travel is as much a policy issue as ever. I asked John Dailey how, if at all, “America by Air” might shape the policy debate. He pointed to the photos, artifacts, interactive displays, and narratives that show how far we have come: “Some of the most amazing accomplishments of our lifetime.”

“America by Air” offers a monumental perspective on a great American achievement, an achievement that warrants inclusion among the country’s landmarks of art, science, and history.

This review of “America by Air,” a permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on February 11, 2008.