The Fight over Flight: what's the problem with air travel?

Saturday 31 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Student Union

The recently approved plans for a third runway at Heathrow have sparked fierce debate about air travel. Anti-flying groups have spoken up in opposition to the plans, mostly citing environmental concerns. While many are concerned about the environmental impact airport expansion will have, however, others worry that restricting the continuing expansion of our freedom of movement would be a backwards step. Regular air travel has only recently become affordable for most people, and critics of anti-flying groups argue there is a heavy dose of snobbery in their dismissal of the right of ‘chavs’ to fly off for ‘stag nights in Prague’. So is there more to the fight over flight than concerns about carbon emissions?

At a time when it seems we are working more than ever, and our leisure hours are dwindling, others feel that wasting precious time on long, flight-avoiding journeys is a price they are simply not willing to pay. Moreover, some claim airport expansion and transport infrastructure development will bring much-needed jobs amid the recession. But this is countered by the argument that the downturn is an opportunity to develop ‘green jobs’ rather than expanding environmentally harmful industries.

BA has sparked much outrage by asking its staff to work for free to help the company survive, and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary continues to tout ever more outrageous cost-cutting measures for workers and passengers alike. Meanwhile campaign groups like Campaign for Better Transport complain air prices are kept artificially low by government subsidy, avoiding investment in other, more sustainable forms of transport. The economy, they argue, would benefit by more people taking a ‘staycation’ in the UK. Is the freedom of flight now a necessity to be defended, or a luxury we should sacrifice for the good of the planet? Should the government be prepared to develop and enable air travel as much as possible, or should we instead focus on improving our domestic infrastructure?

Listen to the session audio…

Other formats are available here

Dr Mayer Hillman
environmentalist; senior fellow emeritus, Policy Studies Institute; author/co-author of over 50 books, including How We Can Save the Planet and The Suicidal Planet

Darren Johnson
Green Party member and chair, London Assembly; leader, Lewisham Council Green Group

Peter Smith
director of tourism, St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development

Abigail Ross-Jackson
speakers' agent, Ed Victor Speakers Bureau LLP

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Abigail Ross-Jackson speakers' agent, Ed Victor Speakers Bureau LLP
Recommended readings
BA boss questions flying motives

'I don't believe people fly because they like the idea of flying, particularly business people,' British Airways boss Willie Walsh has said.

BBC News, 19 October 2009

BAA to give up on third Heathrow runway

THE airport operator BAA has bowed to opposition to a third runway at Heathrow airport. It will not submit a planning application before the general election and will not sign large contracts to “bounce” a future Conservative government into accepting it.

Chris Gourlay and Jon Ungoed-Thomas, The Times, 12 October 2009

Do you care about your children? Then stop flying

The industry is perhaps the most unsustainable on the planet

Mark Lynas, Independent, 10 September 2009

Planes 'threaten climate targets'

The UK may have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 90% by 2050 so the aviation sector can continue to grow.

Roger Harrabin, BBC News, 9 September 2009

Cost of air travel 'must rise to deter people from flying'

Government advisory body on climate change says ticket prices should rise to ensure emissions fall to 2005 levels.

David Batty and Caroline Davies, Guardian, 9 September 2009

Why I’m standing up for the right to fly

The co-founder of Modern Movement explains why they’re holding a pro-flight demo in London on Thursday.

Alex Hochuli, spiked, 19 February 2009

Class hatred at Stansted Airport

Posh Plane Stupid insists that it is not picking on poor people. So why is it so madly obsessed with cheap flights?

Brendan O'Neill, spiked, 9 December 2008

Nuclear-powered passenger aircraft 'to transport millions' says expert

Call for big research programme to help aviation industry convert from fossil fuels to nuclear energy.

Ben Webster, The Times, 28 October 2008

The menace of cheap travel

Publishers are on dodgy ground when they advise readers against ‘frivolous’ travel, since they have little intention of slowing down themselves.

Mark Khazar, Battles in Print, 1 October 2006

The Social Consequences of Hypermobility

Mobility is liberating and empowering. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing. The growth in the numbers exercising their freedom and power is fouling the planet and jamming its arteries.

John Adams, RSA, 21 November 2001

Terminal 5 Inquiry: The implications of climate change for the future of air travel

It is clear that, in light of the scale of reduction needed, no substantial sector of the economy can be excused from reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and especially those fossil fuel-consuming ones contributing most damage.

Mayer Hillman, Government of London, 1 April 1998

Session partners