The expansion of air travel that has taken place over the past three decades is one of the greatest economic success stories of our time. The number of passengers passing through the UK’s airports has grown from around 60million per year in the early 1980s to over 210million today. Heathrow alone now handles more passengers per year than all UK airports taken together handled 30 years ago.
Within less than a generation, air travel has been transformed from a luxury good to a mass-market product. It has become accessible to low-income consumers: according to airport surveys, among leisure travellers resident in the UK, over 13million reported incomes of less than £17,500 per annum in 2011. This increased accessibility has hugely changed travel patterns and leisure habits. The aviation industry and the recreation industries surrounding it have grown in size, variety and sophistication.
But that success story may well have reached its zenith in 2008. If the feeble economic recovery lasts, flight activity will probably soon climb back to pre-recession levels, but it is unlikely to find its way back to its prior growth path. The large airports in south-east England are bursting at the seams, and although airport operators are keen on building new runways, without political approval, their hands are tied. The government, meanwhile, is doing its best to postpone a decision on the matter, for example by setting up commissions which, after months of study, reconfirm the obvious.
Part of the reason for this political inertia is that airport expansion is hugely unpopular among the residents who live close to an airport. But that is not the whole story. It is also true that environmentalist campaign groups, journalists and academics have succeeded in stigmatising aviation as a ‘dirty’ industry. They have successfully talked people into feeling guilty about flying. Hence qualitative studies on social attitudes show that people quickly become defensive and uncomfortable when questioned about their travel habits. The opponents of air travel have not won the debate, but they have managed to set its tone.
Airport expansion still has many supporters, but take a closer look at their arguments, and you will find that they always hide behind a merely instrumental defence of air travel. Air links, we are told, are needed so that British businesses can gain access to emerging markets before their continental European competitors get there. Air links are also presented as a means to attract overseas investors to the UK. Air travel, it seems, is only defensible insofar as it is an input in the production of something else. Supporters of airport expansion no longer dare to defend leisure travel that serves no purposes other than recreation and pleasure.