Flying is being demonised, but how else are we going to get around?

The fact is that jumping on a plane is just so convenient

Flying has been getting a bad name lately in terms of its impact on the environment. And with reason. Flying and the emission of greenhouse gases are uncomfortable companions. Flights kick out more CO2 than cars and we have seen how keen the Government is to get us to go all-electric for our vehicles.

Towards the end of last year members of the group Coldplay announced they would not undertake a global tour to promote an album because of environmental concerns. More recently, climate activist Greta Thunberg opted for a 32-hour train journey from Sweden to Switzerland rather than fly to deliver a speech in Davos. I find it hard to “warm” (no pun intended) to Ms Thunberg and I’m sure the feeling would be mutual should we ever meet (unlikely) but much of what she says does seem to make sense. Maybe I’m just sniffy about being told to how to behave by someone 50 years my junior.

Last week, Heathrow’s bid to have a third runway was ruled illegal by the Appeal Court which said the go-ahead for it was not consistent with the Paris Agreement.

In response to the ruling, Johanna Bonhill-Smith, Travel and Tourism Analyst at GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company, said: “Many airlines were banking on the third runway expansion at Heathrow Airport to reach more markets and increase capacity at the UK’s busiest airport, but have now been dealt a major blow as the expansion has been blocked. The announcement highlights the intensity of the climate change movement, and this battle between the airspace industry and environmental enforcements will no doubt be ongoing and the undoing of many growth or expansion strategies for years to come.

“Numerous airports throughout the UK are currently in the process of planning ways to expand in order to increase capacity in both the domestic and international aviation space. However, with the term ‘climate catastrophe’ more widely broadcast than ever, the rise of Flygskam* and environmental campaigners gaining more traction throughout Europe, the aviation industry is under more intense scrutiny than ever to consider wider environmental impacts.”

If airports cannot expand, is it reasonable to suggest that the numbers of flights currently undertaken cannot increase? Were that to prove true, would that spell the end of cheap flights as we know them? If airlines cannot add more flights that surely means they must seek to earn more and more from the flights they can make. How desperate would the situation be if flight numbers were to stagnate or even retract?

I think some context is called for here. The fact is that humans have only been flying for a little more than a century if you concur that the Wright Brothers made the first controlled foray in 1903. The world had survived for many centuries without being able to hop over to Majorca for a two-week break. Charter flight mass tourism that only started in the 1950s. Before that, if you wanted to get anywhere outside the UK there were these slow things known as boats and trains (and trains hadn’t been around that long).

I say this slightly tongue in cheek … but could we see a resurgence of boat travel. Yes, the boat still has to “burn” some form of fuel to get around. But think of the numbers a large ship can move in one go. The Titanic had 2,224 on board. The current Airbus giant, the A380, carries around 500.

Should we be thinking about breaking the Cutty Sark out of its Greenwich dry dock if air travel is to be curtailed? Photo by Adrian Dorobantu from Pexels

Then, of course, there is the question of time. The record transAtlantic crossing from Europe to America by a liner was timed at three days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. The now sadly missed Concorde could get to New York in three hours 15 minutes – as many hours as the ocean-going liner took in days.

The fact is that anywhere on earth can be reached by a combination of boat, train, car and horse/donkey/camel! But the question is: are we prepared (and able) to take the time to get there to avoid being shamed for flying?

Until a few years back I was living in Thailand and my brother was based here in the UK. He’s not keen on flying. It’s not a green thing, except maybe around the gills. He just doesn’t fancy it.

He’s retired, so time was not such a consideration. I looked into how he could get to Thailand by boat or train. There is no boat in the liner sense. Though some cargo vessels did carry a small number of passengers. By train you could reach Ho Chi Minh City before having to resort to other methods of transport. He didn’t come! I guess now we could do a bit of Facetime on the Internet if I ever go back there.

Is the Internet the answer? The company I work for has interests all around Europe, but we don’t see the execs hoping on a plane that often. Not when Skype means they can chat to each other ‘face-to-face’ without leaving the office.

More and more company directors as asking themselves if trips by any form of transport – not just planes – are strictly necessary. So, is business travel contracting? If it isn’t already, I think it soon will be.

However, there is still the question of tourism. I mentioned Thailand. I still go back there about once a year for a vacation. I would prefer that my trips do not turn into ‘guilt trips’. Maybe I should ration them. But I wonder how many others would consider doing the same.

Of course, it’s not as if aviation hasn’t already got enough on its plate, then there’s this coronavirus thing screwing up travel to certain parts of the world. We humans do like to have something to agonise over. Coronavirus, in my non-medical opinion, is getting over-hyped. Boring old flu currently kills many more people. You don’t see major sporting events getting cancelled because of flu. Coronavirus is a concern, but let’s keep a sense of proportion.

Finally, and as an excuse to introduce a bit of music, I ask: are the days of “leaving, on a jet plane” as immortalised separately by John Denver and Peter, Paul and Mary soon to be over?

*Flygskam or ‘flight-shaming’ is an environmental movement across Europe which is encouraging people to stop taking flights as a means of transport. Flygskam is a Swedish word and literally translates as ‘flight shame’.

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David Buckley

Dave Buckley is a career journalist. “I once went painting girders for a week and discovered I didn’t like heights,” he says. “Apart from that it has always been journalism for me in one form or another.” Past publications worked for include the South-East London Mercury*, Kent Messenger, Daily Express, Today*, News of the World* and Hong Kong Star*. All those marked with an asterisk no longer exist (trend emerging?). He owned and edited a Thailand-based property magazine before returning to England and currently works as a production editor for an East Midlands-based publishing group.

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