Bringing things down to earth

Thursday, 16th July 2009 at 8:00 UTC Leave a comment

The age of gratuitous art travel continues a pace, but there are some cracks becoming visible in the jubilation of the air industry. It seems that even if a third runway were built, there just might not be enough flights left to use it. But does this mean flying will return to its elite status, and what might become of the work force currently involved.

Its a period which has seen BA announce losses, then beg its staff to work for free (its nice to know your needed, isn’t it?). Of course, this can mean that less planes fly and that airlines are more picky about flying empty seats around, something which can’t entirely be a bad thing. Maybe the reported demise of interest in business class could disuade airlines giving over huge chunks of aircraft to this particularly troublesome bunch of travellers who essentially pay the airlines a premium that the airlines themselves then pass on to the planet by burning more fuel per passenger. Cattle class might be uncomfortable, but it is a massive improvement fuel wise.

Its also a period which has seen a long succession of government statements about the need for Heathrow to expand, some of which have seemed quite plausible, after all, there’s no doubt that a third runway would, if no more flights were added, reduce waiting times for landing, potentially reducing regional carbon emissions quite dramatically, as obviously waiting to land means burning pointless fuel. But ask anyone around Heathrow what they think of previous announcements of the sort, and they’ll be pretty clear about it: the government will say “this is it, the last expansion, no more flights, no more disruption” and 6 months later they’ll renege. Other statements have been quite thick, like the claim we need a third runway at Heathrow to make sure we still have Europe’s big hub airport. Given the CO2 emissions on hub and spoke operations are higher than on a point to point basis, it strikes me as a narrow minded statement.

For those who need that explaining, a model that assumes flights travel between one huge airport and one of any given size, and that passengers between smaller locations will always change at a hub, is a hub and spoke model. Flying, say, KLM to Schiphol, you might find yourself sharing a 737 with people for any number of destinations, only to join people from other UK airports who flew in on other 737’s before boarding the 747 for your transcontinental hop. Given emissions required to land and take off again, you can find yourself doubling your emissions in the process quite easily, especially if you fly KLM from Leeds Bradford to Schiphol, then on to New York, essentially going backwards to go forwards at a cost of some 300 miles more flying and an extra take off and landing.

It is for this reason only that I feel sorry for Boeing and their immense struggles to get the 787 Dreamliner off the ground. Being the only plane designed to really make use of point-to-point economy, it has to be preferred to the mother of all hub-and-spoke machines, the improbably huge Airbus A380, who’s claim to saving the environment is based on the number of passengers it carries whilst it does the work, and not the half dozen 737’s an airline might use to collect up the passengers for a viable transcontinental hop.

“Airlines are expected to clock up almost $9bn in losses this year, IATA predicts.” – but I doubt it’ll be the airlines and their higher echelons of management who’ll really feel the pinch. Baggage handlers and airport cleaners, the low waged jobs that airlines provide in great abundance, will be the first to suffer, and those that suffer most.

The other problem being, the downturn isn’t really anything to do with principles, as these slightly overly tetchy passengers kind of highlight, being far more willing to not fly on the grounds of what they see as inconvenience and poor customer service, than on the basis that they might save a life or two by getting off the plane. If Capitalism re-rails itself as it probably will, there’s no guarantee people won’t flock back again. Of course, the government won’t stand for that, they’ll cap aviation emissions. But at what level? A very smug Milliband has recently announced that the cap will be at 2005 levels, the very highest they’ve ever been.

Right now the government seems unable to decide which way to look on the issues around aviation. The Unions rightfully want guarantees of work and dignity. The easiest way out here is to keep their workers doing what they’re already doing. But that isn’t necessarily the only way to achieve the aim of wages and dignity; guaranteed redeployment into another industry would work just as well.

Then there’s the travelling public, who want to keep their cheap flights, when rail travel around Europe is at it’s best in decades. And then there’s an unwillingness take on big business, who would loose far less than the public and the workers, but who carry so much more clout. Its easy to see why the government might be tempted to play along with the airlines, until you factor in the human costs of failing to act. Only then does it become clear that, in the grittiness of reality, we simply have no option left but to cancel some flights.

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Entry filed under: Airlines, Climate Change, Environment, Sustainability, Travel.

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