Air travel: the skies, the limits

If poor people have less opportunity to fly, then surely the answer is to tackle poverty rather than to limit other people's travel.

Peter Smith

Topics Science & Tech

While there was much talk about whether UK chancellor Gordon Brown’s last budget would be green, he’d already done his bit to stop us flying. In December 2006, he sharply increased air passenger duty, doubling it on short-haul flights from £5 to £10. For the cheapest flights, the charge is now effectively a tax of 100 per cent or more.

This seems to have started a bidding war over who can be the most anti-aviation with the Tories announcing green air taxes last week. Defending the proposal, Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne tried to reassure us that the proposals would be targeted at frequent fliers and not families taking their ‘annual holiday’ (1). Nice of the Tories to limit our aspirations to just one holiday a year. Some of us might consider Osborne’s plans a continuation of the austerity forced on many an average family when the Tories were last in government.

Yet this outlook is entirely in keeping with those on the ‘left’ who are equally disdainful of those of us who aspire to more than an annual week’s holiday in the sun. This week it was the turn of the anti-poverty campaigning group the World Development Movement (WDM) to attack flying. According to their report Dying on a Jet Plane, flying is ‘largely a rich person’s game’. WDM charges the government with encouraging ‘flying in the face of the poor’ (2).

And just in case we weren’t getting the message, expensive double-page spreads keep appearing in our national newspapers telling us of the danger to the planet of flying: ‘fly less, take trains when you can.’ Yesterday, on the new London-Newquay air route, Greenpeace activists were offering train tickets to those air passengers who would switch. Ironically, the trains are currently out of action on part of the route, forcing passengers to take buses instead.

Environmentalists have long pointed out that airline fuel is exempt from Value-Added Tax (VAT – currently 17.5 per cent), which they argue heavily subsidises the airline industry. Friends of the Earth claim the annual subsidy to airlines is £7billion (3). The WDM accuses the government of subsidising the aviation industry by £10.4billion a year through tax relief and airport expansion. With guesstimates and a good deal of projection going on, the £3.4billion difference in figures doesn’t seem to matter as much as the message.

Dying on a Jet Plane estimates that government subsidy to airlines is the equivalent of £173 for every man, woman and child in the UK. This suggests that the rich benefit the most from financial incentives to the airline industry paid for by us all, rich and poor.

The report claims: ‘Flying is an activity dominated primarily by the rich. The richest 18 per cent of the UK population are responsible for 54 per cent of flights, while the poorest 18 per cent are responsible for just 5 per cent.’ This sounds fairly radical stuff, as no one likes to see the low-waged missing out on such a widely enjoyed activity.

Yet it’s worth looking at the figures in more detail. The statistics reproduced in Dying on a Jet Plane are based on figures collected by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which surveys travellers departing from UK airports (4). The CAA figures have been used over the years by a range of studies on aviation from left-of-centre think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (5) to anti-flying campaigners Plane Stupid (6). All use the figures to present flying as an activity of the wealthy.

The much-quoted factoid behind this assumption is that the average salary of passengers using UK airports is £48,000 per year. Now, £48,000 a year is certainly more than many of us earn, but is it really ‘rich’? It comes to something when an anti-poverty organisation considers people earning £48,000 as ‘wealthy flyers’. Tackling poverty used to mean raising the average wealth of society. Today it seems there’s a cut-off point. How much is too much? Forty grand? Maybe only thirty grand?

Dying on a Jet Plane also reports the number of trips from UK airports by passengers on an annual income less than £14,374 a year fell from more than eight million in 2000 to seven million in 2004, while the number made by people earning over £28,750 rose from 28.8 million to 36.5 million in the same period (7).

In other words, the more money people have, the more often they will take up opportunities like travelling. The same method could be used to analyse other industries receiving government subsidies. What is the average annual income of frequent rail users or organic food buyers? Higher than £14,374 a year would be a safe bet. Should government subsidy be removed because we’re ‘Dying on a Intercity Train’ or eating organic vegetables ‘in the face of the poor’? Of course not. In an advanced economy, governments support a range of industries for good reason. Transportation links are essential for a fully operating economy and prosperous modern society. It is difficult to think of an industry that doesn’t receive government handouts one way or another, either directly or indirectly.

The fact that the poor can’t afford to consume as much as the better off would traditionally have been answered by demanding (and often winning) wage increases. Alternatively, subsidies were used to increase access to certain activities for the poorest. The logic of the WDM argument is surely to provide subsidies for the poor so they can fly, too – but WDM won’t be suggesting that any time soon.

At the very least, we could support low-fare airlines that argue that a tax based on a percentage of the fare, rather than a flat rate, would be better than the regressive tax we have now. Instead, we’re told that flying too often is ‘greedy’.

People setting their aspirations higher, coming together collectively – or acting individually for that matter – to fight for higher wages isn’t something environmentalists spend too much time advocating. Indeed, when fighting for wage increases was more common, environmentalists were conspicuous by their silence. Selfishly demanding pay rises is considered a throw back to the grubby, conflictual politics of the past. Today we’re supposed to be much more concerned with our ‘work-life balance’ and post-industrial ‘quality of life’ issues.

Put simply, people on £14,374 need higher wages to participate more actively in society, be that by buying better homes or flying more often. Yet higher wages mean higher levels of consumption: the opposite to the environmental agenda. Indeed, a prerequisite for the growth of environmentalism is the defeat of those old demands for more.

The suggestion from environmentalists is that we should all be happy with less. In this argument against flying, the rich aren’t really rich and the poor are just stooges used to lower the aspirations of us all.

Peter Smith is a lecturer in tourism at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill asked Who’s afraid of Ryanair? Ethan Greenhart argued that we should all be brought back to earth and David Soskin declared in interview that ‘cheap flights should be a cause of national rejoicing’ Or read more at spiked issue Transport.

(1) Tories plan green tax on flights, BBC News Online, 11 March 2007

(2) Flying in the face of the poor, World Development Movement, 19 March 2007

(3) Friends of the Earth

(4) CAA Air Passenger Survey, Civil Aviation Authority, 24 October 2006

(5) The Sky’s the Limit: Policies for sustainable aviation, IPPR

(6) 10 Reasons to Ground the Plane, Plane Stupid

(7) Flying in the face of the poor, World Development Movement, 19 March 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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