A Kamikaze attack on manmade flight

A new exhibition charts the history of aviation from the suicidal Pioneer Age to the bold Jet Age to the drab ‘Eco Age’.

Airlines have been fighting yards of bad press in recent years. And a new exhibition at the Science Museum in London, titled Does Flying Cost the Earth?, shows that their industry is clearly on the defensive.

The exhibition is sponsored by Airbus’s parent company, EADS, and aims to show the measures the aviation industry is taking to minimise its carbon footprint. Unfortunately, it also shows that we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for any stunning developments in aviation during our lifetime.

Instead some of the world’s most imaginative engineers, funded by billions of pounds of investment from the aviation industry, spend their time tweaking the existing technology in an effort to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions by a matter of percentage points. The exhibition explains how even getting rid of first-class seats and rivets can knock a few per cent off an airline’s overall carbon emissions, and how we can soon look forward to being driven to our take-off slots in trucks so that pilots don’t have to keep their engines running while on the ground.

There are one or two exciting developments, such as the Batman-style wing which changes shape when an electrical current is passed through it, or the blended-body plane which is described as a ‘flying-wing’ (admittedly, this new vehicle will come without very many windows, but apparently TV screens will show passengers what is going on outside so effectively ‘every seat is a window seat!’)

However, the exhibition also shows that the aviation industry is becoming drearily reliant on the idea that alternative fuels might bail it out of the ‘carbon trap’. So if we’re lucky we might see planes using liquid hydrogen fuel within the next 50 years - though even this development might not be very useful if water vapour in the troposphere turns out to be more damaging than carbon. Also, if the current neglible use of biofuels is already, according to some observers, causing famines and food riots, are they really going to be a viable alternative fuel for the voracious airline industry?

Indeed, the aviation industry itself seems unsure as to how all these efforts will reduce its impact on the planet. The exhibition includes a quite fun, interactive game which allows you to control a putative airline and to stamp as many planes as possible with the latest advances in eco-technology – yet gameplayers always seem to chalk up an exponential increase in carbon emissions, no matter how many planes they stamp as ‘green’.

Visitors to the exhibition are invited to make a pledge to reduce their own impact on the planet. Naturally, the pledges are pre-set for you, ranging from refusing to buy air-imported food to committing not to fly again this year. It seems strange that an exhibition funded by airlines should implicitly encourage people not to fly very often: for all of its technological wizardry, it seems even the aviation industry thinks the best way to save the environment is to guilt-trip people into giving up flying.

If it isn’t frustrating enough that so much innovation and invention is being dedicated to (possibly) reducing flying’s carbon footprint, the exhibition also reveals it is all quite pointless, given the comparatively limited impact that aviation has on the climate.

According to the research on display, flying contributes just two per cent of worldwide carbon emissions each year; and looking forward to the doom-laden year that is 2050, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculates that the aviation industry’s contribution to annual carbon emissions will be three per cent. The notice boards do admit that this would actually be nine per cent of current global carbon emissions – yet surely the real question is: why do we focus on and fret so much about flying’s impact on the climate rather than on what is causing the other 97 per cent of carbon emissions?

There are plenty of good reasons why the aviation industry should work on more economical flying. Fuel is still by far every airline’s largest expense, and it would of course be silly wilfully to pollute the atmosphere if alternative options are available. However, if you go three floors up in the Science Museum, the permanent flying exhibit there makes for depressing viewing. In 40 years in the mid-twentieth century, human flight went from the bi-plane to the Concorde. In the following 40 years, very little seems to have been achieved. Boeing 747s have got a little bigger, Concorde has gone and we have the Dreamliner in its place.

The permanent flying exhibition at the Science Museum traces the history of aviation from the suicidal Pioneer Age to the dash of the Heroic Age to the bold Jet Age. Today, as the new exhibition suggests, is the ‘Eco Age’ really the way forward, where the emphasis will be on tweaking technology and making flight quieter, more humble and more restrained? Wilbur Wright, one of the great developers of flight, argued that: ‘The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors, who in their gruelling travels in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space.’ Today, when flight is seen as a problem, even an ‘eco-crime’, Wright and others will be turning in their graves.

Henry Williams is an intern at spiked.

The Does Flying Cost the Earth? exhibition is at the Science Museum in central London until 15 November 2008.

Previously on spiked

David Soskin told Brendan O’Neill that cheap flights should be a cause of national rejoicing. James Panton described flying as liberating and enlightening. Peter Smith argued that when it comes to airtravel, the sky is the limit. Nathalie Rothschild did not share the miserabilist outlook of the not-so-happy campers protesting against a third runway at Heathrow. Or read more at spiked issue Environment.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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