Passenger air travel has come to a virtual standstill. EasyJet has grounded its entire fleet, and Ryanair has announced it will not resume commercial flights before June. British Airways has elected to suspend 36,000 staff and has closed its operations at Gatwick and London City airports until further notice. Overall, passenger flights have decreased by up to 95%. With job losses for airline and airport staff likely to reach hundreds of thousands, the government’s priority is, unsurprisingly, securing workers’ income and keeping strategic routes open.
But if government intervenes and looks to buy a stake in airlines, this could be a turning point in transport policy, as the pandemic allows us to pivot to a lower air-travel future. We are already being forced to rethink how we move around, conduct business, keep up family ties and maintain friendships in a globalised world without aviation – a dire necessity, given the urgency of the climate emergency.
Estimates by the International Air Transport Association suggest that only 30 of more than 700 airlines will survive the next few months without government intervention. In response to warnings of airport closures and airline bankruptcies, the chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised government support, but only after all other commercial options have been exhausted, such as raising funds from existing investors. Virgin Atlantic estimates the sector needs up to GBP7.5bn of immediate government support. Some airlines are already cutting costs by standing down staff and halting commercial services.
Attaching conditions to government support rather than writing the industry a blank cheque is important. Any rescue plan should be conditional on those airlines providing critical transport services, including repatriation and freight. This could mean acting as an operator of last resort – akin to the directly operated railways, such as LNER. Sunak has been clear that any deal would be “structured to protect tax interests”, but partially nationalising a few key airlines would make more strategic sense. With a stake in the industry, the government will be able to directly steer aviation policy and reconsider how it fits into long-term transport strategy.
Even under a high or low fuel-saving scenario, emissions by the aviation sector are set to double or triple by 2050. In recent years we have seen a boost in air travel by an average of between 4% and 5% a year. By 2050, aviation was forecast to account for almost a quarter of emissions worldwide and be the most polluting sector in the UK. Air travel is also a sector that predominantly caters to a wealthier demographic. The richest 10% account for 60% of all flights purchased. And it is worth remembering that aviation emissions are not attributed to any country’s tally – a blind spot in international commitments on climate change. Public oversight of the industry makes all the more sense given recent claims that airlines are trying to “dodge” their climate obligations in light of the current crisis.
With a stake in the airlines, the government could directly oversee a policy of reducing air travel, which would be part of a wider low-carbon transport strategy. Applying pricing tools such as a frequent flyer penalty, carbon emissions-based tax or airport user surcharge would discourage air travel. At the same time, government should invest in alternatives such as rail and bus services – including sleeper trains and coaches for long-distance travel and also telecommunications infrastructure to enable widespread working away from the office. The personal cost to airline and airport staff should not be dismissed. New investment in more sustainable transport services and infrastructure will create new jobs, including in customer service, logistics and engineering. The government could provide targeted training so airline and airport staff can acquire different work within the transport sector.
From consumer’s point of view, the current interruption of global air travel is also an opportunity to shape future travel behaviours. The work, business and social habits adopted during the coronavirus crisis might spark a renewed sense of “flygskam”, or flight shame. This notion, in response to campaigner Greta Thunberg’s activism, has shifted travel behaviour in Sweden, with railway passenger numbers up 17% and air travel down 4%, comparing the summers of 2018 and 2019. In a 2019 survey by Swedish Railways 37% specifically chose rail over air – up from 26% the previous year.
We’ve known for years that we need to radically change our attitude to flying; Covid-19 could be the nudge we all needed.
Nicole Badstuber is a transport policy and travel behaviour researcher at University College London and the University of Westminster