If air travel has lost its charm, that’s not a bad thing

In the movie don’t look up, people decide to ignore a terrifying scientific discovery: a comet is on its way to destroy Earth. But give the idiots some credit. In any case, they are not trying to accelerate the speed at which the comet is approaching.

That is roughly what EU aviation policy does. Brussels wants airlines to continue flying planes, even if there aren’t enough passengers to justify doing so. Lufthansa says it wants to cancel 18,000 flights in the next three months but cannot do so without losing its valuable airport slots. These flights will hold fewer people than the average Downing Street work event. The thought of nearly empty planes emitting greenhouse gases should make our blood boil.

EU rules normally require airlines to operate 80 percent of their allocated airport slots. It reduced that to 50 percent during the pandemic, but that’s still stumbling Lufthansa.

Brussels’ intransigence is backed by low-cost airlines, who say that if Lufthansa can’t fill the planes, they should give them up. Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, a man who loves the publicity so much that he probably has published his own birth in the press, accuses Lufthansa of “crying crocodile tears over the environment”.

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

If you want to spend 100 euros in the most polluting way, buy a plane ticket. That’s because the ticket price includes virtually none of the actual costs: the UK subsidizes flights by more than £8bn a year simply by not charging VAT or fuel tax. This belies O’Leary’s call for fair competition. Governments should be relieved that the pandemic has helped people get rid of flying.

In November, even before Omicron hit, international flights worldwide fell 47 percent from 2019. Flying has lost some of its charm: the realization that many flights are unnecessary, the hassle of Covid permits, the chance to fly next to a unvaccinated tennis star. John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow, an out-of-town shopping center with an airport attached, admits an end to Covid’s legacy “will likely be years away”.

My business friends suspect that a quarter of their work trips never come back. At Lufthansa, business travel accounts for 30 percent of passenger numbers and 45 percent of revenue, Bernstein analysts estimate. Maybe we can fill these spots with Ryanair holidays. Or maybe we can act wisely and not force airlines to use their slots this year or next. If a climate emergency doesn’t mean accepting a break in air traffic and pausing airport expansion, what does it mean?

We could use the time to think about frequent flyer taxes: in England, the 10 percent most frequent flyers take half of the overseas flights. We could very well invest in sustainable fuel.

Ryanair’s sustainability plan is based on refueling aircraft with used cooking oil. Spoiler: The world isn’t eating enough potato chips to run planes on used fat. Synthetic alternatives to kerosene could do the job, as climate expert Chris Goodall points out, but they are currently on a small scale.

Of course, aviation is only a fraction of our emissions. But the lack of urgency is ubiquitous. This week, master stock voter Terry Smith spoke out against green pioneer Unilever, saying management was “obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the company’s fundamentals”.

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

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