Winging it

Despite the panics that dog the airline industry, passengers plump for the benefits of flying.

Peter Smith

Topics Politics

The airline industry hasn’t had much of a good press lately.

The deep-vein thrombosis (DVT) controversy reared its head again back in April (1), along with a well publicised case of ‘air rage’ featuring Peter ‘It was the wine reacting with my tablets’ Buck, from the band REM (2). In mid-May, a computer error at the new air traffic control (ATC) system at Swanwick caused delay and cancellation of scores of flight to and from UK airports, leaving thousands of customers stranded (3). Just as the backlog of flights was clearing, British Airways announced its worst year since privatisation, chalking up a £200million loss (4).

It has also been claimed last week that the new screens at Swanwick make it difficult for air traffic controllers to read their screens correctly, something that leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook was forced to deny (5). And all of this has come on the back of the fallout from 11 September, from which the airlines are only just recovering (6).

Like the UK railways, air travel looks set to become an area of much debate and discussion, with each particular debate having a knock-on effect on public confidence in air travel.

As a result of an unestablished link between long-haul flights and various medical conditions, the DVT controversy has involved numerous high-profile lawyers and politicians pushing for compensation (7). For all the advice issued by airlines to their customers, the perception is that there is, at best, a dismissal of people’s concerns, or, at worst, a cover-up. The fact that there remains no proven link between air travel and the development of blood clots is rarely highlighted. Headlines such as ‘MP to lead DVT deaths probe’ tend to dominate (8).

Another problematic area is around privatisation of air traffic control. The UK government’s decision to sell 46 percent of the national air traffic service (NATS) to the Airline Group in July 2001 raised many criticisms, not the least among Labour backbenchers (9). Part-privatisation is opposed for a number reasons – for example, the recent difficulties around NATS reduced income following a slow-down in air traffic post-11 September.

The disruption on 17 May was caused by a breakdown in the new computer software at Swanwick. This inevitably sparked more criticism and the suggestion that this could be a sign of things to come (11). But while there are many compelling arguments that could be made against the privatisation of ATC – not least that it is likely not even to make any money – it is telling that this whole discussion is couched in terms of safety (12). In fact, the recent problems only caused flights to be grounded – and in terms of air safety, there is no safer place to be than stuck in the departure lounge waiting for your flight to leave as planned.

All these discussions are unlikely to inspire much confidence in air travel. But has it stopped travellers taking to the skies?

Again, as with the railways, millions of us continue to travel by plane. While rail travel is for most of us just a way to get to work, air travel is something we usually do in our leisure time. Despite the panics and controversies that surround such forms of transport, we continue to use them. The difference is that we do so with more anxiety than at any time before.

Confidence in air travel plummeted after 11 September, and flight numbers still have not returned to full strength, particularly on North American routes. But when, faced with this collapse in confidence, the low-cost carriers like Easyjet and Ryan Air hit back aggressively with substantially reduced fares, they forced people to decide between their apprehensions and a £10 fare to Malaga. Many travellers weighed up their fears against the price and made the pragmatic decision that the benefits of cheap air travel outweighed the potential risks. This strategy is now seen as a major success story (13). The sheer numbers of people that fly on the low-cost carriers has shown that, whatever people’s apprehensions, with the right incentive they will still fly.

It seems that despite the various panics around air travel, most people will continue to travel and with scope to go further more cheaply than ever before. For those of us who consider air travel to be a positive development, this suggests some optimism that the panics haven’t won. With summer around the corner, what better time to shout about the positive aspects of travel – not least to get away from the doom-mongers at home?

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Blood clots

(1) MP to lead DVT deaths probe, BBC News, 11 April 2002

(2) REM star cleared of air rage attack, BBC News, 5 April 2002

(3) Airports battle to clear backlog, BBC News, 18 May 2002

(4) BA Chalks up £200m loss, BBC News, 20 May 2002

(5) MP rejects air control blunders claims, BBC News, 23 May 2002

(6) Unchartered airspace,, 20 September 2001

(7) DVT: anatomy of a panic, by Josie Appleton

(8) MP to lead DVT deaths probe, BBC News, 11 April 2002

(9) Prescott bid to avert air traffic revolt, BBC News, 1 May 2000

(10) UK air traffic control ‘cannot raise fees’, BBC News Online, 21 May 2002

(11) Air travellers face years of chaos, Observer, 19 May 2002

(12) MPs condemn air traffic sale, BBC News, 17 February 2000; Labour safety fears over air traffic sell-off, BBC News Online, 20 December 1999; Selling off the skies BBC News Online, 16 February 2000

(13) ‘No frills yet plenty of soaring ambitions’, Financial Times, 7 January 2002

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Topics Politics


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