It's after 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, and Jeremy Noble is about to leave his job as an air traffic controller at Sea-Tac International Airport.
If he were driving home to Stanwood, north of Everett, his commute would take two hours. But today, he's taking his plane.
It was his wife's idea. He had become a grump, she said. Flying to work might make him more tolerable, she thought. At least it would shave 45 minutes off his commute.
Now, two days a week if the weather is good, Noble rises above it all in his small Cessna 182 airplane. On one of those days, we joined him.
His dream commute home starts with a short car ride to the Renton Municipal Airport from Sea-Tac. Being Seattle at rush hour, we hit a patch of traffic on the way.
“We talk about growth in Seattle – this is the kind of growth we’re talking about,” he says, gesturing to the packed highway. “This is mostly traffic coming out of the airport, people who have landed in the last couple hours.”
This beater of a Honda, which he keeps parked at the Renton airport space he rents, has no air conditioning. In the stalled traffic, the heat builds up quickly. But the traffic hell is about to end for us when we reach his plane.
Noble goes through a safety check, starts the engine, and we're ready for takeoff.
“Getting above the traffic is — it’s like freedom,” Noble says.
At any moment, there might be 300 planes in the air around Seattle, Noble says. Many of them are too high to see or hear. But on the radar scope at Noble’s job, he sees them all.
“It’s chaotic,” he said. “There are airplanes everywhere.”
Noble’s job is to organize that chaos. He coaxes the planes into orderly approaches to the airport.
“We get them all lined up, so they’re all three miles apart,” he says. “It kind of looks like a string of pearls as they come down.”
If only car traffic could be so smooth. It’s about 3:45 p.m. and already, I see cars backing up on Interstate 5 and 405 below us.
How do we let this happen every day? From the air, it becomes clear: Traffic is created by thousands of individuals making short-term personal decisions in their best interest given limited information.
For airplane traffic, however, control comes from the top, with the FAA. Under the federal agency's guidance, traffic in the sky conforms to strict timing and geometry.
“If you look at Seattle, and you draw a north-south line, and an east-west line — so essentially a plus sign over Seattle — that’s where the airplanes are going out,” Noble said. “If you draw an X over Seattle, that’s where the airplanes are coming in.”
As we fly, pilots and towers communicate constantly. They tell Noble to steer clear of Snohomish, where people are jumping out of planes for fun. From Noble’s plane, their parachutes look like dandelion fluff.
Twenty minutes after takeoff, we reach the far northern edge of the Seattle metro region. As we prepare to land, the approaching Arlington airport looks sleepy. It has no air traffic controllers. Out here, pilots simply call out their locations to each other over the radio.
But below us, highways leading in and out of Everett are clogged. Last year, traffic in the north end of the metro region got so bad that Noble occasionally touched down at Paine Field, south of Everett, to pick up his wife, Jeanette, so she wouldn't have to fight traffic northbound out of Everett. Things have improved since a major construction project ended.
At the Arlington airport, Noble hops into a second car, which we drive 15 minutes to his rural home outside of Stanwood. He lives in a modest home on five acres with chickens and dogs. In contrast, his plane is worth as much as a high-end Tesla.
Most of us can't fly to work. And consuming 10 gallons of fuel per day just to shave 40 minutes off a commute doesn't make financial or environmental sense as a strategy for broad adoption. But I learned something from the trip.
At rush hour, our roads and cars look like an anthill someone stepped on. They lack the top-down organization that makes airplane flight safe, when you’d expect it to be risky.
There is one place where our transportation system appears organized. It’s a line of light rail that slices through the center of the region. From the sky, it looks as thin as a human hair.