January 16, 2022

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If air travel has lost its charm, that’s no bad thing

In the film Don’t Look Up, humans decide to ignore a terrifying scientific discovery: a comet is on course to destroy Earth. But give the idiots some credit. At least they don’t seek to accelerate the speed at which the comet is approaching.

That is roughly what the EU’s aviation policy is doing. Brussels wants airlines to keep flying planes even when there aren’t enough passengers to justify them. Lufthansa says that it would like to cancel 18,000 flights in the next three months, but can’t do so without losing its valuable airport slots. These flights will hold fewer people than the average Downing Street work event. The thought of near-empty planes spurting out greenhouse gases should make our blood boil.

EU rules normally require airlines to operate 80 per cent of their allocated airport slots. It reduced that to 50 per cent during the pandemic, but that is still tripping up Lufthansa.

Brussels’ intransigence is supported by low-cost airlines, who say that if Lufthansa can’t fill the planes, it should give them up. Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, a man so disposed to publicity that he probably press released his own birth, accuses Lufthansa of “crying crocodile tears about the environment”.

O’Leary is on a list of people who I hope never to be in a fight with, alongside Tyson Fury, Dominic Cummings and whoever keeps on breaking into cars on our street. But the European Commission should ignore him.

If you want to spend £100 in the most polluting way possible, buy an airline ticket. That’s because the ticket price includes virtually none of the true cost: the UK subsidises flights by more than £8bn a year, just by not charging VAT or fuel duty. This belies O’Leary’s call for fair competition. Governments should feel relieved that the pandemic has helped to wean people off flying.

In November, even before Omicron hit, international flights were down 47 per cent globally on 2019. Flying has lost some of its charm: the realisation that many flights are unnecessary, the hassle of Covid permits, the chance of being seated next to an unvaccinated tennis star. John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, an out-of-town shopping centre with an airport attached, admits that an end to Covid’s legacy is “likely to be years away”.

My business friends guess that a quarter of their work travel is never coming back. At Lufthansa, business travel makes up 30 per cent of passenger numbers and 45 per cent of revenues, analysts at Bernstein estimate. Maybe we could fill these slots with Ryanair holidays. Or perhaps we could act sanely and not force airlines to use their slots this year or next. If a climate emergency doesn’t mean accepting a lull in air travel and pausing airport expansion, what does it mean?

We could use the time to devise frequent flyer taxes: in England, the 10 per cent most frequent flyers take half of overseas flights. We could invest like hell in sustainable fuel.

Ryanair’s sustainability plan relies on fuelling planes with waste cooking oil. Spoiler: the world does not eat enough chips for planes to run on used fat. Synthetic alternatives to kerosene may do the job, as climate expert Chris Goodall points out, but they are currently small-scale.

Sure, aviation is only a fraction of our emissions. But the lack of urgency is pervasive. This week master stock picker Terry Smith unloaded on green pioneer Unilever, saying its management was “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business”.

Maybe Smith is right. Maybe when the comet hits we can console ourselves that at least management was focused on the fundamentals of the business. But could we give the alternative a chance? Could we look up, and not worry that the planes are half-empty in the name of the share price?

henry.mance@ft.com

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