Flying: more or less

I just got back from America. We had a great time seeing dozens of family and friends. Yet, every time I fly, I feel a pang of guilt. Well, pang might be overstating it, but definitely a twinge.

After all, a major part of my professional life is advocating for sustainable transport and taking action to increase travel options that are friendlier to the environment and society. I tend to practice what I preach as well. I have commuted by bicycle, by train, and now mainly work from home. I walk my daughter to school and my groceries home from the shops. There are many benefits to making such choices, but I would not shirk from saying that reducing my carbon footprint is one of those benefits. I have learned about and believed in climate change for decades.

Yet I continue to fly. Regularly. As do many others. And although I feel a twinge of guilt, I wouldn’t want to see air travel severely restricted, even as I want to see the nations and cities of the world come together to fight climate change. In fact, if flight was restricted, wouldn’t the coming together of nations for whatever purpose be restricted as well?

So what place does flight have in the future of movement? Is the recent trend of more flights to more places carrying more passengers set to continue? Or will it come to an abrupt halt in our lifetimes?

Many argue for the importance of air travel on economic grounds, but only 19% of airplane passengers are travelling for business.

Yet flying for tourism, cultural exchange, exploration, international experience and involvement is not bereft of value either, not least economic value. Even if that value accrues to other countries more than my own.

And I would argue that flying for family has inestimable value to the positive development of our world civilisation. I previously suggested (https://go-how.com/2014/04/14/flying-for-family/) that leisure travel to visit family rather than for pure tourism likely accounts for a greater percentage of air passengers than commonly considered. Over 8 million people or 13% of the resident population of the UK in 2014 were born elsewhere. It would be fair to assume that a large number of these people, whether UK citizens or not, have family outside the country to visit, perhaps regularly, even if they can’t all boast of the numbers I saw this trip.

So flight must have a future. But perhaps its future requires more endeavour to remove those twinges of guilt.

The car is accelerating towards new technologies much faster than the airplane, but there is some progress to report. A solar airplane has flown over halfway round the world and is soon to complete the rest of its journey; http://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/three-unusual-ways-solar-soaring. Solar power is gaining traction in other areas of the sector as well.

Meanwhile, NASA and commercial aircraft manufacturers are reported to be researching the future of supersonic air travel, with the aim of not only economic viability, but less emissions too: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/supersonic-flight-concordes-successors-are-in-the-works-15-years-on-from-the-paris-crash-10415912.html.

Trends in other forms of transport are emphasising the sharing economy and utilisation of idle capacity. With more cooperation between nations, cities and airlines, I am certain that air travel too could become more efficient. Whenever I read about the debate around hub airports and expanding London’s Heathrow, I always wonder what could be achieved if Heathrow, Amsterdam’s Schipol and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airports could collaborate to better serve the flying public and the local communities, never mind the environment. If they no longer saw themselves as competitors, perhaps an analysis of flight paths and filling seats could translate to significant fuel savings. There could be apps that guide passengers to journey choices that enable flights and airports to operate at optimum capacity in near real-time. Such application of current technological trends and use of big data is surely more likely if conglomerates of airports are involved.

I would like to believe that human flight is a 21st century trend that is and can be sustained. But that will only be the case if air travel can supress its extensive emissions and I can fly, without the guilt.

2 thoughts on “Flying: more or less

  1. It appears to me the days of unfilled planes is in the past which means that the airlines are cancelling flights or even routes to make sure their planes are full. Less guilt around!

    • I agree that I have found most planes I’m on very full indeed in recent years! However, I have heard stories of people who can and do fly off-season and regularly have an extra seat next to them.
      Anecdotes aside, another interesting lack of efficiency arises when you don’t tick the ‘direct only’ box on flight searches. Why is it often cheaper to fly between London and New York or Boston not direct, but via places like Toronto, Canada and Frankfurt, Germany, adding many flight hours to your trip? (Versus Iceland, which would only be extra time to make the connection.) The short answer might be taxes and fees, but the longer one probably has to do with a lack of international coordination and prioritising competition between airports and airlines over efficiency.

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