Monday, February 04, 2008

Too far to drive, too close to fly

That's the conundrum I face when I have to attend meetings with our client in San Antonio.

A general rule of thumb regarding short business trips (in this part of the country, at least; along the East Coast, the rules are probably different) is this: there's a 200-mile cut-off between driving and flying. Any trip shorter than 200 miles - from Houston to Austin, for example, or Lake Charles - you drive, because it's easier, quicker and cheaper than flying; anything longer than 200 miles - for example, Houston to Dallas, or New Orleans - you fly, because it's easier, quicker and cheaper than driving.

But what do you do when your business destination is exactly 200 miles away? To be technical, Google Earth says that the straight-line distance between the City Hall Reflecting Pool in Houston and the Plaza de Armas in front of San Antonio's City Hall is 189.3 miles, but along Interstate 10 it's close to 200 miles even between the two downtowns. In other words: it's too far to drive, but too close to fly.

It takes me three hours, give or take a few minutes, to drive from my house (near downtown Houston) to our client's office (near downtown San Antonio). And it's not a difficult drive; it's a straight shot along Interstate 10 and, unless I hit rush-hour traffic in west Houston or east San Antonio, I probably won't encounter any traffic congestion. But it still means sitting in me car for three whole hours at a time. And it's a rather boring drive, too; there really isn't much between Katy and Seguin.

However, flying's no quicker; it takes just as long as it does to drive - about three hours - once the travel time to the airport, the time spent at the airport (if I arrive at the recommended one hour before flight time), the actual flight (50 minutes, gate-to-gate, under ideal weather conditions) and the travel time from the airport to the client's office is added up.

The cost is a wash as well: driving the entire way, at 400 miles round trip, I'm reimbursed at the current rate of $0.505/mile, which adds up to about $200 if I drive the entire distance. A ticket on Southwest Airlines (provided I'm not flying at the last minute) costs about $185. Add in a $15 cab ride from the airport to my client's office (our local subconsultant who attends all the meetings will drive me back to the airport for free), and the total cost to fly is about $200 as well.

Flying and driving, of course, are the only two real options available. Intercity bus, such as Greyhound, isn't suitable for business travel due to an infrequent schedule and - let's face it - the demographic of its clientele. Passenger rail service between Houston and San Antonio is an absolute joke, with only three departures a week in either direction - all of which are late at night - and an utterly glacial travel time of four hours between the two cities (if the train doesn't get held up by Union Pacific freight operations).

It's been suggested that high-speed rail could one day offer a solution to this dilemma, by providing a service along these short-haul routes that is faster, more comfortable and more convenient than either driving or flying. I am not, however, under any illusions that high-speed rail is going to become a reality in Texas anytime soon: it's insanely expensive to build and Southwest Airlines would spend millions of dollars to lobby against it, as they did with a high-speed rail proposal floated in the early '90s. I'd like to think that at least some money could be invested in the nation's decrepit passenger rail network to provide short-distance train travel at speeds that at least are competitive with driving, but I don't really foresee that happening, either, even if the nation's freight railroads were amenable to increased passenger service along their lines (right now, they are not).

For the time being, I've decided to make day trips to San Antonio by way of airplane. As much of a hassle as air travel is these days - I don't have to take my shoes off for anybody when I drive - it still beats sitting in a car for six round-trip hours, navigating around lumbering convoys of eighteen-wheelers or being aggravated by people who don't understand the concept of "slower traffic keep right." When I fly I can relax, and maybe get a little bit of work done, at the gate or on the plane. And I also get the frequent flyer credits. Of the two choices, it's the one that's better, even if only slightly.

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