It’s time for Beeching-style cuts in domestic aviation routes in the name of climate change.
The UK domestic airline FlyBe’s call yesterday for the cancellation of Air Passenger Duty (APD) on internal flights and it’s last ditch ‘rescue’ by the government has to be filed under ‘cheeky monkeys’.
The very fact that they claim APD makes their business model unworkable reveals a lot about the crazy world of transport in the climate crisis as we enter the ‘turnaround years’.
Last year the government committed to ‘Net Zero’ by 2050 - Extinction Rebellion demanded it by 2025, and a recent poll found 70 percent of Britons supported a transition by 2030 as proposed by the Labour Party. Whichever way you choose to slice it the UK has huge emissions cuts to make. The only debate is on ‘how fast’?
As an almost entirely discretionary behaviour - unless you live on a remote Scottish island, and even then Caledonian MacBrayne have probably got you covered - flying is very much a ‘nice to have’, not an essential component of modern life. And also the single most carbon intensive behaviour an individual can undertake.
After an initial upsurge in domestic flights in the late nineties and early noughties, domestic flights have actually fallen by twenty per cent in the last decade and there are good reasons for that beyond the obvious carbon concerns and climate sanity.
Trains have got better. Even the manager of Gatwick airport explained the drop in Manchester to London flights by citing the improvements on the West Coast mainline. And almost everywhere in the world, where train services improve, the flight route suffers.
Very few people fly between Barcelona and Madrid anymore since these cities were linked by high speed rail, and you have to be pretty stubborn to fly London Paris in the era of Eurostar.
But even when the links aren’t super fast, if you improve the quality and reliability of the service, and focus on the experience, then trains also triumph.
After initial teething problems Sercol’s new Caledonian sleeper is simply a really cool - and, dare I say it, classy - way to travel between London and the Highlands, a trend reflected by the renaissance of sleeper services across Europe.
Even a couple of years ago these seemed doomed due to cheap flights, but new rolling stock, climate anxiety and the rediscovery of a rewarding journey, not just a lower atmosphere (in every way) twang across the country, appear to have reversed the direction of travel.
It’s all about the experience of the train. Journeys can be enormously productive with good wifi. It’s not ‘dead time’ and with a table far superior to the wasted hours in an airport departure lounge with a laptop balanced on your knees.
Some German trains even have bookable ‘Board rooms’ for on-train meetings and I was recently invited to a conference in Val D’Isere that started with a specially booked TGV ‘ice-breaker’ train from Paris full of delegates in which they’d turned the bar into a nightclub complete with DJs!
We live in a relatively small country, we’re not Norway with remote Arctic outposts to service, but are seemingly obsessed with ‘hypermobility’ – labouring under the delusion that everyone should be able to travel as far as they want, as fast as they can, as frequently as they choose.
But at what cost?
The ludicrous extravagance of HS2 is the epitome of this mentality. Whether the argument is capacity or speed, neither really stack up, and when over a hundred irreplaceable, stunning ancient woodlands are threatened to boot you can’t help thinking we would get far far better bangs for bucks by investing the equivalent tens of billions in the existing rail network.
FlyBe bang on about ‘regional connectivity’ as if the internet didn’t exist. In 2020 people run global businesses from their spare bedrooms. The idea that the prosperity of UKplc relies on internal aviation is frankly risible.
So who is flying internally? I worry that what we’ve actually been seeing is aviation commuting. People flying from all over the UK into London for work on a weekly basis.
This is an insane stretch of ever increasing commuting distances that has continued to grow for decades and pushing up property prices around places like Newquay to the exclusion of local people. Perversely, it’s almost certainly cheaper than the train equivalent. Our incentives are entirely arse about face.
The government appears to have acceded to FlyBe’s ‘suggestion’ on APD, at least deferring their debts, in order to save the business. However, the government is unlikely to write off this debt completely. We make more than £3.5 billion from this tax from domestic and International flights.
It is also not a fair fight between plane and train to begin with. Aviation already enjoys a mahoosive advantage over rail thanks to the absence of an aviation fuel tax. It’s not a level playing field.
It’s a Gloucestershire cheese-rolling slope with FlyBe at the top and trains at the bottom, full of cider and with mangled limbs. Terrifyingly, Heathrow’s third runway also promises 200 additional domestic flights per week and the airport has invested £10 million in a national ‘route development fund’. This is frankly bonkers in a climate emergency.
I am writing this from a ferry in the middle of a rather lumpy, bumpy Irish Sea en route to run a workshop in Dublin on, wait for it, responsible tourism and destination management!
Ironically, London Dublin at 1.7 million passengers a year is also the busiest ‘domestic’ (Yes. I know the Republic of Ireland is not part of the UK) flight route. And yet the train and ferry only takes a day. I left Euston at 9.10 this morning and will arrive in Dublin at 17.25.
Along the way I have read all the materials for tomorrow’s workshop, prepared my presentation, written this article, day-dreamed out the window at the ‘goat-bitten gorse hinterlands’ as my Anglesey born friend Saci describes her wet and wind-whipped (today at least) home turf en route to Holyhead and enjoyed a relaxing and serviceable Thai curry onboard. Compare that to the faff and stress of a ‘short’ flight, travel times to and from airports, departure lounge dawdling, grim commercial gauntlet of duty free and being cramped in your seat for the duration, and you realise the time difference relative to quality of experience is minimal. And it cost me £50 one way.
The real reason for FlyBe’s squeaking? The troubled airline was acquired in 2019 by a consortium of Virgin, Stobart Group and a US Private Equity Firm Cyrus Capital for a pittance of £2.8 million and was due to be rebranded by Branson as ‘Virgin Connect’ this year.
They’re now bleating that APD makes the business unviable and attempting to make all sorts of semi-plausible at face value arguments about regional economies and disconnected communities to save their investment.
We should only ever consider cutting APD in order to replace it with a truly hypothecated measure like the Frequent Flyer Levy which tackles head-on the grossly unequal access to aviation enjoyed by the binge-flying wealthiest that means 75 percent of UK flights are taken by only 15 percent of the population.
In our age of populism that might actually make major in-roads into demand management, reducing pointless aviation and saving precious carbon for perhaps international flights impossible to make overland or sea to visit loved ones. Whilst simultaneously helping us arrest the growth in aviation overall and ultimately to reduce it in line with our climate targets.
Sorry FlyBe. Nice try. But we see through your arguments. This may be a temporary reprieve but I suspect you’re still ultimately going down. It’s time for Beeching-style cuts in domestic aviation routes in the name of climate change. The train to a better future has already left the station.