Air Travel: What If You Could Never Fly Again?

Written by Kate Goldstone

There’s more to the ongoing airport expansion story than an extra runway at Heathrow, if that’s how to cookie eventually crumbles. Now we’re seeing dramatic increases in the number of people travelling by air, as reported by a number of analysts, airports and newspapers.

Cairo Airport Crowds

Cairo Airport Crowds

What’s going on? Is there a limit to the number of passengers the nation’s airports can handle? More importantly, is air travel itself sustainable in the long term – how would you feel if air travel as we know it bit the dust, and you could never fly again? This week we thought we’d take a look at the stats and take you on a journey into the fictional future of aviation.

Dramatic growth in air passenger figures

According to Moodie Report Gatwick airport has just seen its busiest July ever. 6.4% more people flew from Gatwick this July, which means the airport served an impressive 4.3 million passengers in just 31 days. It’s the latest statistic in a run of month-on-month growth spanning two years, suggesting it’s much more than a blip. It’s a trend.

“Gatwick continues to meet passengers’ needs by providing them with more choice, value and destinations. These results put us ten years ahead of the forecasts used by the Airports Commission to predict future air traffic movements,” said Gatwick’s obviously exasperated CEO Stewart Wingate. “Our growth in the last 12 months is actually more than the Commission concluded could be added at Gatwick in the first year of a new runway being operational here – this is further proof of the flaws in the Airports Commission analysis and shows its conclusions are fast unravelling.”

At the same time Heathrow airport also reports record breaking passenger numbers through July, exceeding 7.2 million passengers for the 31 day period. They served 254,375 people on the 31st July alone.

Gatwick Car Parking

Gatwick Car Parking

The Express reports soaring passenger numbers at Stansted airport, which also had a bumper July, its busiest for seven years. Their dramatic midsummer boom was partly down to the launch of three new long haul routes from Thomas Cook, taking holidaymakers to Orlando, Las Vegas and Mexico. The resulting 12.5% rise meant they serviced an extraordinary 2.19 million of us throughout the month.

The Newnham Recorder, meanwhile, reports on record passenger numbers at London City airport. The numbers are putting London’s Mayor Boris Johnson under increasing pressure to approve City Airport expansion.

Stuck between two powerful arguments

At first glance it’s a strong argument: record numbers of passengers squeezing through airport doors surely means airport expansion is a no-brainer? On the other hand scientists say we’re on a climate change knife edge right now, and CO2 emissions have already pushed the planet’s climate past a key target we really didn’t want to reach.

It’s difficult to reconcile long and short term thinking when faced with climate change. We need to create a healthy green economy, but there are all sorts of growing pains to bear in the interim. There’s a fundamental mis-match between what we have to do to make ‘now’ work properly, and how we need to behave now to ensure the future will be liveable for our children.

Could we expand regional airports?

Can regional airports meet extra passenger demand? Potentially. And it’d mean fewer people would have to travel London-wards, taking off from closer to home. They’d emit less CO2 on the journey to and from the airport, which is good news. But flying per se is so environmentally unfriendly that any benefit would probably be swallowed up by increasing numbers of passengers demanding more and more flights.

It’s ironic. The more we travel by air, the more we expand airports, the faster we’ll bring about runaway climate change, and the sooner we’ll bring about the death of the air travel industry. All of which brings us to the crucial question: is air travel sustainable, full stop?

Is air travel sustainable?

If passenger numbers keep increasing, how long will it take before Britain’s airports start bursting at the seams? That’s the economic challenge. If we keep on flying at our current rate, how long will it be before climate change bites us good and proper? That’s the green challenge.

We need to halt global warming at less than 2C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this target, as an article on the Greenwise Business site says, “the increases in air travel in the developed world seen in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of cheap flights, will have to be severely limited in future.”

Whichever way you look at it, economic or environmental, humanity’s love affair with air travel doesn’t look particularly sustainable right now. So what would life be like without it?

Alternative ways to travel short and long haul

There are always short haul alternatives: trains, buses, coaches, the Channel Tunnel. It just tends to take longer to get from A to B. Long haul is an altogether different matter. All you have, as an alternative to aircraft, is the sea. Travelling by ship is very slow indeed compared to trains and planes. But it gets worse. Like planes, ships are at the mucky end of the CO2 emissions spectrum. They’re notorious emitters, and green shipping is just as far away as green aircraft.

Return to Cruising?

Return to Cruising?

Anything else? Not really. There’s a solar powered plane making its graceful way around the world right now. But that’s a million light years from carrying passengers, at the experimental stage. It looks like we’re stuck, with no reasonable long haul alternative to the aeroplane.

Long distance travel in the future

What will travelling by air be like for our children and grandchildren? What will the future of air travel look like? Will there even be such a thing?

We might end up in a world where we look back at the bad old days – where we flew regularly at horrific environmental cost without really thinking about it – with shame. We may have to get used to not being able to travel thousands of miles in no time at all, more or less on a whim, for very little money. And we might have to get used to it pretty quickly if global warming follows its current trajectory.

If you can’t fly, will it matter? It’d certainly be a big shock to the system, knocking a whopping great big hole in the Zeitgeist. But travel isn’t essential for a good, long and healthy life. It’s an added extra, icing on the cake. We won’t die without holidays in Florida.

There’s a lot to be said for enjoying the process, in this context enjoying the journey as much as the destination. It was something our pre-air travel ancestors were past masters at, inching their way across vast distances slowly, steadily and determinedly by train, bus and tram, on foot, by horse and by bicycle.

Business travel is different, of course. While it’s good to meet face to face for a strong commercial relationship, it isn’t essential. You can always use cutting edge online technologies, including walking, talking holographs of people beamed in real-time, concurrently, to meeting rooms all over the world.

Can you see yourself coming to terms with taking days, perhaps weeks, to get to your destination? How would you feel if you couldn’t just take off and fly whenever you want? How would having to change the habits of a lifetime affect you? Feel free to leave a comment.

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