Interview With James Wallace: Reflections From an Aerospace Reporter

Travel Blog  •  Rob Verger  •  04.03.09 | 9:26 AM ET

Photo courtesy of James Wallace.

Award-winning reporter James Wallace covered aerospace for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for more than 12 years. He worked for a total of 27 years at the paper, which recently stopped printing and transitioned to an online-only version with a comparatively tiny reporting staff. When that happened, Wallace’s job disappeared.

Wallace, who wrote a goodbye blog entry, is the author of two books, “Hard Drive” and “Overdrive,” both about Microsoft. 

I caught up with him over the phone to hear about his years on the aviation beat.

World Hum: You covered aerospace for 12 years. How have you seen commercial air travel change during that time?

Wallace: Probably the biggest change has maybe been in some of the technology of the airplanes themselves. You’ve got new planes that are far more efficient—planes like the A380. I was on the first flight when Singapore Airlines put that plane into service. That was in October of 2007, from Singapore to Sydney. The airline invited me as one of the media that got to be on that first flight, so that was very special. You’ve seen less reliance on four-engine planes and more on two-engine planes like the 777 because they’re more fuel-efficient. When I first started doing lots of travel as part of my job, you had more capacity so the planes weren’t quite as full. And as the airlines have cut back capacity, most of the planes are far more full. You’ve certainly seen an explosion I think of business-class amenities. A lot of the airlines have done away with first class, but they’ve really upgraded their business class.

What were your most memorable traveling experiences?

Probably the highlight was in November of 2005, Boeing decided to set a world record with its 777-200LR, that was still being certified—it had not actually gone into airline service yet. That’s their long-range plane, they wanted to set a distance record, so they decided to invite select media. There were 35 total people on the plane, including pilots, and executives and media, and we flew nonstop from Hong Kong to London the long way: and that is across the Pacific, across America, and across the Atlantic to London. Of all the adventures I’ve had as a journalist, that’s at the very top, because we flew into the history books. The flight lasted almost 23 hours nonstop. The whole front of the plane did not have seats. So it was an area where you could walk around, you could go into the cockpit, you could talk to the pilots. It was just a real blast. I’ve never had as much fun on an airplane.

How would you characterize the current commercial air travel situation? It seems like airlines are struggling and passengers are benefiting from lower fares.

Yeah, I think that’s true to some extent. There are some good fares out there. It remains to be seen how much worse the industry gets. A lot of the airlines are deciding to postpone taking some airplanes from both Boeing and Airbus; they’ve pushed back some of those deliveries because they really don’t need the capacity. You don’t have as much frequency right now between perhaps the same destinations, so the planes are probably going to be just as full as they’ve always been. This probably is the low point. I’d add that the International Air Transport Association came out with some pretty bleak numbers on how many billions of dollars the world’s airlines will lose this year. It remains to be seen, if we’re heading down to the low point, and the industry will slowly begin to go back up again, as it always does. It’s not clear yet if we’ve really reached the bottom.

What’s next for you personally?

Well, I love covering airplanes and aerospace, and establishing relationships, which I’ve done, with the men and women who run some of these airlines, and companies like Airbus, and Boeing and Northrop. So I hope to stay close, either through reporting, or perhaps communications, or perhaps even public relations. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge and experience over these years. I think I’m well regarded by my peers, and by people in the industry, and I like being close to people who aim for the sky.

Thanks, James.

Editors’ Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.