There’s a lot of talk about the airline industry at the moment regarding “unnecessary travel” and its impact on the environment. I’ve been thinking about this recently and am not entirely sure what it means – what’s more, I haven’t been able to find anyone else who really knows what it means either. And yet people do go on about it a lot.
As far as I can tell, the term relates to journeys that are not really needed at all – the non-vital ones. That’s all well and good, but how exactly does one decide which ones are needed and which ones aren’t?
The main crux of the argument (from the lobby who are able to judge which journeys are important and which are not) is often levelled against the low cost carriers. These airlines, they say, encourage people to fly when they don’t really need to: these airlines offer cheap tickets; these airlines fly when they are not full. All terrible sins indeed, but not vastly different to those committed by the scheduled carriers who seem to get away without such a telling off.
It might be worth, at this juncture, pointing out that the low-cost aircraft tend to be newer and more energy efficient than the fleets of more “established” carriers and thus the CO2 emissions per customer per kilometre are usually lower. Those against low-cost carriers would not let a minor piece of scientific fact get in the way of a good rant however.
Back to the problem though: which is more important? A family of four flying from London to Orlando with British Airways to see dear old granny or a stag-do of ten flying from London to Edinburgh with Easyjet for the weekend? I’m not sure of the metrics on which to base a judgement but it seems that there are people out there who are. I would think the anti-flight brigade would not have a problem with the US trip in the slightest. I suspect however, that the stag party would, in the words of granny, get their dander up.
The thing is though, if you calculate the amount of CO2 emissions from the two trips, they are not vastly different – the stag trip is a touch higher but then there are many more people going. However, the stag trip is likely to spend a significant amount more when they are there – generating income for hoteliers and those in the hospitality industries who in turn will pay more taxes – which surely is a positive thing.
One website www.ecotravelling.co.uk acknowledges the difficulty in identifying what is unnecessary travel but suggests “moving as many of the “necessary” miles into the least damaging appropriate mode and minimising the “unnecessary” use of more polluting methods of travel.” This makes perfect sense when considering taking the children to school or going to the supermarket, but you cannot really take the bus or train part of the way to New Zealand – well you can, but only if you want to add an extra month to your journey time.
Where this argument about identifying necessary journeys really stands up, is when the matter of business travel is considered. Having worked in the city for some time, I feel I am vaguely qualified to comment on this matter. After lengthy minutes of consideration, I have concluded the problem is this: people who like meetings. Meetings mean that employees can spend a long time at work getting paid for not actually doing anything whilst pretending that they are. People who like meetings also think that attending them (or better, calling one) makes them important – especially if they have lots of meetings all in one day. If someone is in meetings all day, then they must be really important.
Now consider the possibility of adding flying to meetings and you have an irresistible, time-wasting combination for many. Flying adds at least a few more paid hours (possibly days – if you plan your meetings carefully in the Auckland office) and how important must you be if you have to fly to your pointless get-togethers? Answer: not very. You’re just an airmiles-collecting idler.
With communications technology easily outstripping that of aviation development, it is surely possible to video conference on occasion rather than flying to the destination for a face-to-face chat. Having reluctantly sat through many hours of boring meetings (enjoying the fact I was getting paid for doing nothing), I can honestly say, I have never been at a single one which could not have been conducted remotely. Agreed, I was not very important, but I feel certain it is just about scalability. Perhaps the CEOs can have a bigger phone than I had.
Apart from the unlikely prospect of banning meetings, what “unnecessary” travel boils down to is a basic issue of personal responsibility. Passengers’ travel should not be stigmatised by the anti-flying lobby just because their trip is not deemed “necessary” by others; rather the individual should consider whether or not a flight is actually required. If you are going on holiday, then obviously it is really rather difficult to do this over the phone but in many instances, cheap, pollution-free communications really should be the answer.