Very interesting – and telling – words this week from Ed Miliband regarding the so-called 'right to fly'. The climate change and energy secretary told the Guardian that he didn't 'want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly', and would therefore not be seeking to include aviation within the government's broad commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.
'Where I disagree with other people on aviation is if you did 80 per cent cuts across the board, as some people have called for on aviation, you would go back to 1974 levels of flying,' he said. Miliband picked out the airport within his own constituency, Doncaster Sheffield, as an example. 'People in my constituency have benefited from being able to have foreign travel which, 40 years ago, the middle classes took for granted,' he said. 'There are sacrifices and changes in lifestyle necessary. But the job of government is to facilitate them and understand people's lives and what they value.'
What Miliband seems to be saying is that flying is now so important to people's lives in the UK that it deserves to be treated as a special case. It should be largely immune to the tough targets and systematic transition that all other sectors are going to have to experience if exacting carbon reductions are ever to be achieved. So rather than have fair, across-the-board cuts, Miliband is firing the starter gun for every sector to throw up its hands and say that it too deserves special exemption. To take this to its logical conclusion, someone is going to have to make the decision about who deserves such favouritism.
If aviation is going to be allowed to grow and emit without restrictions, another sector is going to have to make up the shortfall. If we really love flying so much, who do we want this to be? The NHS? Universities? Local authorities? If we really want to start prioritising our most valued services and facilities in this manner, then we need to urgently have that discussion.
But I'm not comfortable whenever the class issue is thrown into the ring to support the aviation lobby's argument. Miliband is the latest person to fall for this old chestnut. It has been a debating tool for years, but it never stands up to scrutiny.
Let's look at Doncaster Sheffield airport, as Miliband is asking – even if it isn't wholly representative. It accounted for less than half of 1 per cent of the total number of UK passengers passing through our airports in 2007, according to the latest Civil Aviation Authority figures, but it does have the highest percentage – 94 per cent – of so-called 'leisure' travellers of all the UK airports. These are the types of passengers that come in for the most criticism when people are talking about the growth in discretionary flying over the past decade or so. (This category includes 'visiting friends and relatives' – so-called VFRs – which is arguably the least discretionary of all the reasons to fly, but that often gets drowned out in this debate.)
What 'class' are these passengers? And has there been a significant shift in their demographic profile over the years? ABC1-type analysis seems to largely ignored or viewed as inherently flawed these days, so let's look at something most people understand – income. Civil Aviation Authority figures for 2007/2008 say that the mean household income of leisure passengers using Doncaster Sheffield airport was £41,016. This compares to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, which state that the average UK household income in 2006/07 was £30,000. The mismatch doesn't exactly lead you to shout "working class all aboard" – and this is for an airport you would consider to support Miliband's argument given its higher-than-average volume of so-called 'cheap flights'.
When the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University looked at the 'socio-demographic characteristics of [UK] air passengers' in its 2006 report Predict and Provide (p29, pdf), it concluded that the 'available evidence suggests that flying is largely undertaken by those in richer households, and that most of the growth in flying is coming from people in such households flying more often'. Again, it doesn't exactly support Miliband's argument that the skies are now awash with the working class, say, taking mini-breaks to Europe, or visiting their second homes abroad.
And all this in the week when the airline industry – already one of the most cosseted sectors in the world due to its advantageous tax breaks on fuel – is saying it is suffering an 'annus horribilis'. Are we really going to fall for yet another well-orchestrated sob story from the world's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions?
Leo Hickman is a features journalist and editor at the Guardian. This article is reprinted courtesy of the Guardian Environment Network.