Fly me to the Moon: Aviation: past, present, and future
This year marks one century of commercial flying. On New Year’s Day in 1914, a large crowd gathered in St.Petersburg, Florida, as an airboat named ‘Benoist’ (after its creator, Thomas Benoist), took to the sky for a 23-minute flight over the Tampa Bay, carrying a single passenger (Abram Pheil, who won his $400 ticket in an auction). This maiden flight soon became a regular route, thus marking aviation’s birth as a viable industry. In the following decades, transnational routes, jet engines and global airlines became fixtures of modern life.
What a difference a century makes. Today, 52 aircraft take off every minute, and an incredible half a million people are in the air above us at any one time. Flying now facilitates family visits, holidays, business and academic conferences, and freight trade; it’s made the world smaller, and the global economy bigger.
Aviation is unlike many other industries, and has enjoyed enviable rates of expansion, and favourable treatment by state regulators. Historically, growth in air travel has been at around 5% each year over the past thirty years, and has usually been double the annual GDP growth rate. Surprisingly, airlines do not pay any tax on the jet fuel they burn, whilst airports, airlines and aeroplane manufacturers receive a range of grants, loans and subsidies from taxpayers around the world (Daley and Preston, 2009). Governments see value in aviation: it’s seen as a net contributor to economic growth as it helps facilitate trade and tourism, as well as helping develop cultural, educational and diplomatic ties between nations.
It’s worth bearing in mind that only 2% of the world’s population fly annually, meaning it remains an ‘elitist’ activity in global terms. But at least in the developed world (and increasingly among the newly affluent in the developing world), flying has become an increasingly unquestioned aspect of many social practices. Even if we discount business travel (which often includes a bit of tourism ‘piggy-backing’ onto official work-related duties), many ‘leisure’ activities such as weddings, stag/hen parties, birthday celebrations or sporting events often feature a flight as part of the occasion, no doubt helped by airline prices which are on average one third cheaper than they were 20 years ago (IATA, 2013). Randles and Mander, in their discussion of frequent flying (2000), invoke the metaphor of a ‘ratchet’ to describe how, once new habits and routines become embedded as social practices, it is very difficult for us to let go of them. Like a ratchet, we only seem able to go in one direction.
Yet, if flying helps economies, provides jobs and facilitates activities which people enjoy, then what’s the problem? The problem is aviation’s disproportionate effect on the environment. Air travel is by far the most carbon-intensive activity most people engage in: One return trip from London to New York creates roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide (about 2 tonnes per economy-class passenger) as driving a car for 12,000km, which equates to average daily car use over an entire year. (You can check the emissions of a particular flight, and pay to offset these emissions if you wish, with companies such as Atmosfair or ClimateCare).
Flying currently accounts for about 3% of global carbon emissions, but this is set to double or even triple by 2050 (Barrett, 2014), with passenger numbers set to follow a similar dramatic trajectory. With catastrophic climate change requiring an 80% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2050 (IPCC, 2007) (and many governments legally committed to such a reduction), there appears to be a growing tension between global de-carbonisation efforts, and the activities of an industry which has so far enjoyed an easy ride from governments, and a cosy relationship with regulators.
Technological solutions may not be forthcoming. While modern aircraft engines are worlds apart from those of Mister Benoit’s in terms of efficiency, the rate of improvement just cannot keep up with passenger growth, a fact that even the aviation industry admits (ICAO, 2010). Given that aircraft like the Boeing 747 have an operational lifetime of at least thirty years (and are still in production today), we will be stuck with the present level of aircraft technology for a while yet. Biofuels are sometimes seen as a low-carbon alternative for fuelling aircraft, but given a shortage of productive land and the complexity of converting biofuel into jetfuel, some experts think that biofuels would be far better used for producing electricity than for fuelling planes (Barnett, 2014). Meanwhile, climate change won’t go away.
Politicians are reluctant to face this issue, and so are we, the consumers. Tony Blair once said that “no politician facing a potential election would vote to end cheap air travel” and he may well be right. In surveys of passengers, most say that responsibility for aviation’s impact on climate change lies with aircraft producers and airlines, not passengers (Gössling et al, 2009). Our ‘right’ to air travel is one that we don’t want to give up: again, the ratchet only goes in one direction.
Some argue that we might be able to meet our carbon reduction targets AND still allow aviation to grow in line with projections (i.e. we could have our cake and eat it) but only if we decarbonise the rest of our economy (CCC, 2009). In other words, we can continue to fly, but only if we decarbonise electricity production, land travel, food production, manufacturing industry and pretty much every other aspect of our lives. This could be possible, but it sounds rather unlikely doesn’t it?
Looking ahead to the next century of commercial aviation, we either have some tough decisions to make regarding our love affair with flying, or we have to face some uncomfortable consequences in terms of climate change. The genius Thomas Benoist never had to consider such grand dilemmas, but now we do.
Barrett, S. (2014). ‘Aviation and the environment’ [Lecture to Transportation Research Group, Highfield Campus, University of Southampton] 14th January 2014
Gillen, D. (2009). International Air Passenger Transport in the Future. Vancouver. Retrieved from http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/jtrc/discussionpapers/DP200915.pdf
Daley, B., & Preston, H. (2009). Aviation and Climate Change: Assessment of Policy Options. In S. Gössling Upham, P. (Ed.), Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions (pp. 347–372). London: Earthscan.
Gössling, S., Haglund, L., Kallgren, H., Revahl, M., & Hultman, J. (2009). Swedish air travellers and voluntary carbon offsets: towards the co-creation of environmental value? Current Issues in Tourism, 12(1), 1–19. doi:10.1080/13683500802220687
IATA. (2013). Delivering More Value to Air Travelers. Retrieved from http://view.s6.exacttarget.com/?j=fec816757760007b&m=fe9012717c600d7d77&ls=fe3e15747565047c761172&l=ff2611797163&s=fe5410727d630d747417&jb=ffcf14&ju=fe961c727367017c75&r=0
ICAO. (2010). ICAO Environmental Report 2010. Retrieved December 06, 2013, from http://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/Documents/EnvironmentReport-2010/ICAO_EnvReport10-Ch2_en.pdf
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (2007), Climate Change 2007: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, edited by S. Solomon et al., Cambridge Univ. Press, New York.
Committee on Climate Change. (2009). Meeting the UK Aviation Target—Options for Reducing Emissions to 2050. International Civil Aviation Organization. Retrieved from http://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/meeting-the-uk-aviation-target-options-for-reducing-emissions-to-2050/
Randles, S., & Mander, S. (2009). Practice(s) and Ratchet(s): A Sociological Examination of Frequent Flying. In S. Gössling and Upham, P. (Ed.), Climate Change and Aviation: Issues Challenges and Solutions. London: Earthscan.