The end of cheap flights

21 Apr 2010

“In a future world without aeroplanes, children would gather at the feet of old men, and hear extraordinary tales of a mythic time when vast and complicated machines the size of several houses used to take to the skies and fly high over the Himalayas and the Tasman Sea,” writes pop philosopher Alain de Botton.

He mused on the topic while a “recent writer in residence at Heathrow Airport,” as his recent article for the BBC puts it, after the Icelandic eruption that shut down air travel across Europe.

“The wise elders would explain that inside the aircraft, passengers, who had only paid the price of a few books for the privilege, would impatiently and ungratefully shut their window blinds to the views, would sit in silence next to strangers while watching films about love and friendship – and would complain that the food in miniature plastic beakers before them was not quite as tasty as the sort they could prepare in their own kitchens.”

He doesn’t delve into why flying might end. I’m not sure he even thinks that an end to flying is on the horizon. Instead he might just be imagining what it would be like. (Another article, which I’ll get to in a minute, explains why the end of cheap flights is near.)

“Everything would, of course, go very slowly,” de Botton imagines.

It would take two days to reach Rome, a month before one finally sailed exultantly into Sydney harbour. And yet there would be benefits tied up in this languor.

Those who had known the age of planes would recall the confusion they had felt upon arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.

This new widespread ‘camel pace’ would return travellers to a wisdom that their medieval pilgrim ancestors had once known very well. These medieval pilgrims had gone out of their way to make travel as slow as possible, avoiding even the use of boats and horses in favour of their own feet….

They were not being perverse, only aware that if one of our key motives for travelling is to try to put the past behind us, then we often need something very large and time-consuming, like the experience of a month long journey across an ocean or a hike over a mountain range, to establish a sufficient sense of distance.

Whatever the advantages of plentiful and convenient air travel, we may curse it for being too easy, too unnoticeable – and thereby for subverting our sincere attempts at changing ourselves through our journeys.

As much as I enjoy cheap travel, I wonder how much it really does benefit us individually—and the world as a whole. How much we would really miss it? It’s an important question, because the end of cheap flights may be closer than we think. Rather than being the fate of distant generations, with no memory of what it was like to zoom through the skies on a whim, it could be our own fate, if you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on your view—to be young enough to live a few more decades.

Another writer, Reihan Salam, also took the enforced vacation as a chance to ponder the future of air travel. “The unexpectedly long layover has proved a kind of magical interlude from lives built on constant, frantic movement,” he wrote on

“The trouble is that the incredible mobility to which we, or rather to which a privileged slice of we, have grown accustomed might prove unsustainable,” Salam says. “Within the next decade, dozens of major airlines will go bankrupt.”

The reason will be rising fuel costs, as governments nix the tax breaks on jet fuel that airlines have always gotten—but which may end soon. “Governments will keep working to keep the biggest, most politically connected airlines afloat, larding new subsidies on top of the old ones,” he predicts. “At some point, however, the subsidies will run out and the high price of aviation fuel will prove too much to bear.”

Salam doesn’t seem to be a believer in peak oil—but he says that nonetheless, the end of cheap air travel is nigh. “Even if you’re a peak oil skeptic and you’re convinced that new discoveries will save us, there’s no getting around the fact that jet travel has environmental costs that governments will, sooner or later, try to internalize through the use of even heavier fuel surcharges.”

With jet fuel untaxed, flights are much cheaper than they arguably should be. In the UK, these subsidies add up to nearly £10 billion a year. Obama has called for an end to such subsidies, but I’m not sure what’s happened to the jet fuel subsidy.

I’m not sure what the usual rationale is for this subsidy. I suppose politicians probably say—if anyone even challenges them on it—that airlines are providing a service that helps the economy. It certainly benefits the richer portion of people in industrialized countries—those can afford to fly much at all—and benefits businesses who fly people around for meetings.

It’s too bad, in many ways, that the end of cheap flights is near. Being able to fly far and wide helps knits together people in distant parts of the world that would otherwise seem confusingly foreign and often irrelevant. As Salam says, “Cheap air travel … could very well be remembered as a happy but brief respite from the historical norm of a world divided by distance. And the world will be poorer for it.”

But as de Botton says, maybe travel has become too quick, too easy. And I wonder if the benefits come even close to outweighing the costs to the environment. As long as we can keep the internet running—and some think that in the post-fossil-fuel age, it’s doomed—then we can connect with distant places without changing the planet too much.

For now, I’m a hypocrite, and am still flying around. I have a trip planned to go halfway around the world, from Pakistan to California. The long haul flight actually goes straight over the North Pole, somewhat ironically. Last time I took that flight, about a year ago, I was excited to see the Arctic sea ice, because I’d written a few articles about how it’s shrinking, but I’d never got close to seeing it.

I was struck by how much it looked like a piece of delicate tissue paper floating on top of the ocean. It places it was torn, with long cracks running to the horizon, dark along their edges, where it seemed the tissue had soaked up some water. But probably those were places where the ice was thinning, and had become a bit transparent.

I hope I can settle down and be content without these long flights. My friend Josh Hart, a transport activist, has given up on cars and planes

As Josh wrote on his blog, “The truth is that cheap, long distance travel has eroded the diversity of human cultures and species on the planet. It has also made us weak and dependent, eroding the strength we were all born with.”

He prefers bikes and walking, but takes ships when he has to. (Ships actually have a cooling effect in the short run, according to a 2008 study. But this only masks their warming effect, which kicks in later, and will warm the planet for centuries.)

It seems there’s no green way to travel long distances, so I guess the only answer is to get philosophical, like de Botton, and come to appreciate the benefits of staying home, or, like Josh, to enjoy traveling slowly, under your own power.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »