Class hatred at Stansted Airport

Posh Plane Stupid insists that it is not picking on poor people. So why is it so madly obsessed with cheap flights?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

The contrast between the protesters at Stansted Airport and the people who were delayed by their protest could not have been more stark. On one side there were the well-to-do moaners of Plane Stupid, a campaign group that counts the grandson of a peer, the granddaughter of a baronet, and numerous privately educated young people amongst its most visible cadre. On the other side, the ‘cheap flyers’ hoping to fly abroad from an airport that specialises in no-frills flights, and which has been labelled by snooty observers as Britain’s ‘chief chav airport’ because its main airlines include Ryanair and easyJet (1). On one side, eco-elitists; on the other, everyday holidaymakers.

The protest – which forced Stansted to close for five hours and delayed more than 50 flights – provided a striking snapshot of the snobbish, masses-attacking streak in environmentalism. Plane Stupid and other anti-flying groups insist that they’re not only concerned with ‘poor people’ who take ‘cheap flights’; in response to an article I wrote in 2007, Joss Garman, the founder of Plane Stupid, said ‘cheap flights haven’t made it easier for poorer people to travel for the first time; they’ve just made it easier for the wealthy to travel more often’. So, he said, laying into cheap flights is actually a way of laying into ‘the privileged’ (2). Yet no amount of fact-twisting can disguise the fact that, again and again, the eco-worthies of the anti-flying lobby are drawn towards attacking and delaying those flights taken by the lowest-income communities; by ‘cheap people’. Why?

It is no accident that the Plane Stupid protesters chose Stansted for their biggest demo yet. They said their aim was to ‘draw attention to CO2 emissions from the aviation industry’. Yet Stansted, being the smallest of London’s major airports, does not emit nearly as much CO2 as a Heathrow or a Gatwick. In Heathrow there are 481,476 aircraft movements a year, and 68million passengers. Gatwick has 266,550 aircraft movements a year, and 35million passengers. Stansted comes a low third, with 208,462 aircraft movements a year and 24million passengers (the New Labour government has now given the go-ahead for the expansion of passenger numbers at Stansted). Even Manchester Airport, far away from the Big Three airports in London, has more annual aircraft movements than Stansted: 222,703 (3).

The Plane Stupid protesters targeted Stansted not because it is particularly polluting, but because it is the home of that apparently most reckless and pointless and destructive form of flying: the no-frills variety. Stansted is, as one website puts it, the ‘hub for Europe’s low-cost carriers’ (4). Ryanair, the bete noire of anti-flying groups, flies to 109 destinations from Stansted; easyJet flies to 23. It is not surprising that Ryanair, which is described by Plane Stupid as ‘Lying-Air’, its Irish bosses mocked by the well-to-do, well-educated anti-flying activists for not attending university and being ‘clearly very stupid’ (5), suffered most as a result of yesterday’s protest: it had to cancel 52 flights. And because it is the least frilliest airline of all, its stranded passengers were not offered hotel or meal vouchers; they squeezed themselves into uncomfortable chairs and tried to get some shut-eye as their better-educated peers on the runway kept Stansted in shutdown.

Indeed, Stansted is a gleaming symbol of the opening up of flight to lower-income communities. Stansted has been used as a commercial airport since 1966, but its business has grown exponentially over the past 10 years as a direct result of the rise and rise of low-cost airlines. As one government report says, ‘Stansted has grown very rapidly in recent years, particularly in the leisure market’. In 1998, Stansted was handling seven million passengers a year; in 2003, that rose to 19million passengers; today it handles 24million passengers. This ‘rapid expansion of passenger numbers’ has come ‘on the back of the boom in low cost air travel’ (6). If the growth of Heathrow and Gatwick in the 1960s and 70s spoke to the expansion of air travel for the middle classes, then the growth of Stansted since the 1990s is a result of the expansion of air travel even to the lower middle classes, working-class families, young single people, and others. This is the main reason why Stansted, more than any other British airport, riles the anti-flying lobby: because it symbolises the expansion of flight to nearly all members of British society.

Largely in response to spiked’s critique of their eco-misanthropy, and of their seemingly unshakeable focus on ‘cheap flights’, the anti-flying lobby argues that targeting Stansted and Ryanair is not about targeting ‘poorer people’. ‘The average income of people using Stansted Airport is £47,000 per year – and it’s supposed to be a budget airport!’ scoffs Plane Stupid. In an article attacking me for being a Gap jacket-wearing Marxist (the Gap? Oh please…), Joss Garman added a few extra thousand quid to this estimate, arguing that ‘the Civil Aviation Authority’s own data shows that the average person flying in or out of Stansted, a budget airport, earns in excess of £50k’ (7).

These bandied-about figures are highly disingenuous. The CAA did not find that the ‘average person’ who uses Stansted earns £50,000 a year – it found that the average household income of people who use Stansted as leisure passengers is £47,000 a year. This includes the earnings of everyone living in a single household before it is taxed and squeezed by various other outgoings. This hardly makes them wealthy, and certainly not part of ‘the privileged’. They could not, for example, afford to send their children to schools such as Westminster (£26,000 a year), as attended by leading Plane Stupid activist Tamsin Omond, or Godolphin and Latymer (£15,000 a year), as attended by Plane Stupid’s spokesperson on yesterday’s demo, Lily Kember (8).

In their rush to mock the supposedly ‘privileged’ people who take cheap flights from Stansted, Plane Stupid neglects to point out that, according to the CAA’s figures, the average household income of £47,000 at Stansted is the lowest for London’s major airports. At London City airport, the average household income of leisure passengers is £78,000 a year; at Heathrow it is £58,000; at Gatwick it is £54,000; and at Luton it is £48,000 (9). So, no, those who take cheap flights from Stansted are not ‘poor’ (what the aloof, ivory-tower activists of Plane Stupid fail to realise is that most working-class families, while far less well-off than the public-school crowd, are not ‘poor’ in absolute terms; they frequently earn fairly decent wages, would never define themselves as ‘poverty-stricken’, and like to spend their disposable income on enjoyable things); however, in terms of average household income, Stansted is the ‘poorest’ of London’s major airports. However much Plane Stupid tries to comfort itself with the delusion that it is attacking ‘the privileged’, in truth it continually targets the least wealthy of Britain’s flyers.

Again and again, almost despite themselves, despite their defensiveness about coming across as wealthy snobs – the real privileged – attacking those chavs and slags who fly abroad on the cheap, Plane Stupid and its supporters return to the ‘scandal’ of cheap flights. They cannot help themselves. It really is cheap flights that they find most foul and offensive. Before yesterday’s closure of Britain’s ‘chief chav airport’, Plane Stupid forced the HQ of easyJet in London to shut down, on the basis that ‘binge-flying’ – a phrase that sounds deliciously like ‘binge-drinking’, that other famous pastime of ‘cheap people’ – is ‘choking the planet to death’ (10).

Plane Stupid has also spent thousands of pounds taking out a newspaper ad attacking Ryanair; it was a spoof advert with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary saying: ‘Let’s beat the climate to death. Book Ryanair today to ensure a real climate disaster.’ (11) The dripping snobbery of Plane Stupid’s campaign comes through in its attacks on the kind of uncultured oiks who take Ryanair and easyJet flights from Stansted: ‘There’s been an enormous growth in binge-flying with the proliferation of stag and hen nights to Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner.’ (12)

When you consider that aviation contributes only five per cent to Britain’s total carbon emissions, and that a tiny proportion of that five per cent is caused by Ryanair, easyJet or Stansted itself, it becomes clear that there is something seriously skewed about Plane Stupid’s focus on cheap flights. This is not about reining in CO2 per se; it’s about reining in the slovenly, destructive behaviour of the lower orders. The shutting down of Stansted and the relentless attacks on Ryanair and easyJet are driven by the most pernicious snobbery, by a view of ‘cheap flyers’ as ultimately destructive, noxious, wanton and foul. These posh activisits, descended from baronets, lords, inventors and aristocrats (13), are keeping up a long tradition in which ‘mass tourism’ has attracted the ‘class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity and spirit’ (14). What we saw at Stansted yesterday was not remotely radical or edgy – it was unabashed, undiluted, unattractive class hatred.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said we should let the puritans protest and asked ‘Who’s afraid of Ryanair?’. He described the Climate Change Chaos demo as a march of middle-class miserablists. Mick Hume was unimpressed by protesters’ hijacking at Stansted. Nathalie Rothschild slammed Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to shame passengers into onboard eco-penance. She joined the not-so-happy-campers at the Heathrow protest before meeting the radical Gatwick campers who demanded freedom movement. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Tourism and travel.

(1) Chavtowns: Stansted

(2) Plane Speaking: a response to Brendan O’Neill, Plane Stupid, 10 January 2007

(3) London Stansted Airport, Wikipedia

(4) London Stansted Airport, Wikipedia

(5) Lyin’ Air: Plane Mad versus O’Leary, Plane Stupid, 20 October 2008

(6) The future of Air Transport: White Paper, Department for Transport, December 2003

(7) Plane Speaking: a response to Brendan O’Neill, Plane Stupid, 10 January 2007

(8) The protesters: middle class and militant, Telegraph, 28 February 2008

(9) CAA publishes 2006 Air Passenger Survey, CAA, September 2007

(10) Climate Activists shut down Easyjet HQ, Plane Stupid, 6 November 2006

(11) See Who’s afraid of… Ryanair?, by Brendan O’Neill

(12) Plane Speaking: a response to Brendan O’Neill, Plane Stupid, 10 January 2007

(13) Posh protesters, Daily Mail, 29 February 2008

(14) Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, Paul Fussell, Oxford University Press, 1982

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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