Carry on flying
In praise of budget holidaymakers.
A flight home from Spain on a no-frills airline from a small inland airport, arriving at Stansted on the UK’s hottest day in history, had dozens of families with small children and no bar service. Not even a no-frills bar service that you had to pay for: due to a mistake at the British airport, there was no food and drink at all.
The planeful of passengers groaned, but quietly. Having boarded quickly, arrived early, reclaimed our baggage in a matter of minutes, the lack of gin and tonic on a flight that lasted less than two-and-a-half hours did not really bother us that much. If the experience was more like being on a bus across Britain than flying across the Continent, so much the better. In fact, in the 21st century, international travel should be a walk in the park.
Except that, surprise surprise, all this cheap-and-easy flying is supposed to be Another Bad Thing. As the budget airlines’ profits soar, the cries of NIMBY campaigners grow ever more shrill. Cheap flights are blamed for global warming, noise pollution, the need for more airports and their ability to give working-class oiks the ability to use Europe as their playground on a regular basis. Okay, nobody ever says this last bit out loud: but that’s what they mean.
Scheduled Low Cost (SLC) airlines have been the big travel success of the past few years. The secret of their success is hardly mysterious: the airlines cut costs, such as free inflight meals and turnaround time at airports, which allows them to provide cheaper flights, which people want to buy, which makes for happy holidaymakers and successful companies.
Such is the popularity of cheap flights to nearby destinations that the short-hauls managed to avoid the post-9/11 doldrums that affected other major airlines; and so low are people’s expectations that the problems often associated with SLC airlines – delays, damaged baggage, poor customer service – have been quietly absorbed by that very British mentality, ‘you get what you pay for’. So a survey conducted by the Consumers’ Association earlier this year found that over 50 percent of their members would recommend no-frills airlines to a friend, compared with 20 percent who recommended charter airlines. Sixty-three percent thought that budget airlines offered very good value for money. (1)
And the popularity of SLC airlines looks set to keep rising. Forecasts produced by the UK Department of Transport indicate an expansion of traffic from seven million in 1998 to just under 19 million by 2005, and to between 25 and 32 million by 2020. (2) Sure, this will mean more planes and more airports. But if people can get to more places more cheaply and quickly, what’s the problem?
The old chestnut of ‘environmental damage’ is, of course, a favourite concern of green campaigners, and one which the UK government is keen to take on board. Do aeroplanes make a significant contribution to global warming? Given that green campaigners blame just about every form of transport – with the exception of the humble push-bike – for global warming, you would expect them to point the finger at planes. And given the uncertainty surrounding the extent of global warming, not to mention its causes and consequences, it is hard to put a figure on it. Not that this has stopped the government coming up with figures for ‘green taxes’ and other eco-sounding methods of making cheap flights less cheap.
Building airports clearly has an impact on the environment – but so does building railways, roads, houses and all other kinds of infrastructure. The NIMBY view might be that none of these things should be built at all (or at least not in their back yard), but it’s obvious that society cannot work like this. And on the noise front, while you may have sympathy with the inhabitants of the Heathrow suburbs, ‘noise pollution’ is one of those promiscuous categories used to target next-door neighbours and city-centre pubs as much as aeroplanes and motorways. If mass travel abroad were accepted as a good thing, the side-effects of noise, land-use and emissions would be seen as a price worth paying.
But there’s the rub. Beneath all of the spurious arguments against expanding short-haul air travel is a deeper prejudice, against the kind of people who use these flights and the reasons why they use it. Green campaigners concerned about global warming can somehow justify to themselves why they should fly to the opposite side of the world to debate the environment, because they think the cause is worth it. But tourists on a weekend break to Portugal? Families from the local estate on a budget holiday to Torremolinos via Authentic Andalucia? Yeeeuch!
The most heartening government statistic about the increase in scheduled low cost traffic is the forecasted increase in leisure travel. The Department for Transport predicts that, in 2020, leisure traffic on SLC airlines will be over 20 million, compared to seven million for business. (3) People can afford to travel more often, to more places, taking their kids or their parents on the kind of holidays they would only have been able to dream about in the past. Within Britain, you can avoid the lottery of a weekend leisure-break on the collapsing train system, and take a flight to Blackpool or Edinburgh – in the same way that US citizens have been doing within America for years.
Because it’s cheap, because it’s easy, the only justification the modern family or friendship group needs for making these journeys is because holidays are fun. You don’t have to be a middle-class worthy or a professional on a mission to take to the air – you can just do it because you can. And this is what really winds up the anti-flight campaigners and their supporters within the government. It’s not responsible, apparently, and who knows where all this fun might end?
Budget airlines aren’t perfect. The line between no-frills and poor service is too fine, the definition of cheap is too relative, and just because it’s better than Britain’s trains or motorways does not mean that it’s wonderful. But the transformation of a holiday in the sun from a luxury into something that the British population can take for granted is something we should all raise our glasses to.
spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering
(1) No frills airlines victory, BBC News, 11 March 2003
(2) Air traffic forecasts for the United Kingdom 2000, Department for Transport
(3) Air traffic forecasts for the United Kingdom 2000, Department for Transport