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Have you flown much this year? I haven’t.

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

For most of the past 25 years I have travelled most months, often two or three times a month and sometimes ten or 15 times a month when on one of my regular tours. Without taking the time to count, I reckon I average 30 return flights a year. This puts me squarely in the small category of frequent flyers who, a recent report says, are responsible for half of all global aviation emissions.

“The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change” by Stefan Gosling, who holds positions at universities in Sweden and Norway, and Andreas Humpe from Munich University of Applied Sciences, was published in Global Environmental Change, Volume 65, November 2020.

Highlights of the report include, “estimates that only 2% to 4% of global population flew internationally in 2018” and “1% of world population emits 50% of CO2 from commercial aviation.”

So what will happen to aviation if we 2% to 4% travel less in future?

I wrote early this year about how Covid-19 may permanently change the way some of us work at least some of the time. In the two-and-a-half-years since I set up Shipping Strategy Ltd, communication technology has taken a big step forward. Low-cost and even ‘free’ video conferencing (how do they do that?) went from possible to convenient to acceptable. Now I spend as much time in video-chats as I do in data collection, analysis, and writing.

Even the most die-hard ‘people people’ in shipping have come round to the idea that business can be done at a distance and not only over the dinner table. The Secret Shipbroker (that you, Patch?) who writes in the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers’ magazine this month describes their unshakeable belief in physically being there for a client (to make sure they don’t lose their nerve, surely) but recognises that productivity has been aided during the pandemic by modern communications technology.

According to Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, companies will begin to question much more the idea of taking a trip "just to discuss things." He reckons that business trips will be reduced by more than 50% and that more than 30% of office life will disappear as people work from home more.

When I was a student living in bedsit land, I took the advice of cookery writer Katherine Whitehorn, and thought about my arrangement as sleeping in the kitchen rather than cooking in the bedroom. We have to be careful if we are going to work at home that we don’t end up sleeping in the office (something else I did occasionally in the boom years). That’s easier said than done for most people who don’t have a spare room, garden building or shepherd’s hut to work in.

Perhaps then Mr Gates’ forecasts will be out by multiples of eventual reality, because most people will still need or want to travel to an office sometimes to work more comfortably and sociably than sat on their bed with a laptop and a mobile phone. But it seems to me highly likely that we who make up the sub-five-per cent of people who do half the flying will all fly a bit less in a post-Covid world. And for economic and environmental reasons, that probably means everyone else will fly less.

The long-term reason for that is not public health, though public health measures will surely make air travel (particularly the airport bit) even less convenient and less comfortable than it has become since 9/11. The long-term reason is decarbonisation.

In shipping we have got used very quickly to the decarbonisation discussion. We have all become experts in engineering, chemistry and investment practice as we try to work out what future fuels will be available, at what price, in which locations, delivered by who-knows from who-knows -what sort of production facility. We worry about investing in the wrong technology and ending up with stranded assets. In the meantime, we will get used to ships slowing down to reduce emissions. But shipping as a whole ‘gets it’- if shipping is to decarbonise, it will do so as the global economy decarbonises – which is definitely happening.

Shipping demand may continue to grow, depending on what if anything replaces coal and oil in the cargo holds and cargo tanks - one can't ship sunlight or wind, but one can ship materials, ammonia and hydrogen. But some of the flights that are taken to talk about shipping may not happen so frequently, if at all. How many virtual conferences have you attended this year? How many airfares did you save? What will your employer say next time you want to go on a jolly to London / New York / Rio de Janeiro?

All of which is rather a ontrast to how the aviation industry thinks of the future, i.e. as being exactly the same as the past. It promotes aviation as a universal right and fights for ever greater increases in the number and capacity of airports, and consequently perpetuates its forecasts of ever greater passenger numbers requiring ever more airports with more capacity. The airlines seek tax subsidies on fuel and resist climate levies. A recent promise to make aviation carbon neutral by mid-century lags shipping’s ambition.

The aviation business model is looking increasingly shaky as governments consider greater climate levies, prioritise other forms of infrastructure (like digital and satellite comms) or insist on greater spending on greener and quieter aircraft. In the UK, government has established a transport select committee of MPs to investigate changes to public transport demand post-Coronavirus to inform policy on what should and should not be built. Airports aren't included yet but, as the UK is the third biggest aviation CO2 emitter in the world after China and the US, a review on environmental grounds must surely be on the cards.

Along with environmental concerns, the big problem for airports and airlines will be a slower or negative growht rate in business travel. Business travellers (or more usually their employers) buy expensive, flexible tickets which subsidise cheap, fixed-price tourist flights either directly or through payments to airport operators. If business traellers fly less, tourist ticket prices go up, and tourist demand growth falls. If aviation is to pay for its energy transition, as shipping surely will, then ticket rpices will go up, and tourist flight demand growth will fall.

It’s perhaps surprising then that all 27 regional airports in the UK are moving ahead with plans to expand to meet future demand that was forecast before Covid-19. Do they not fear owning stranded assets? Maybe, but the real reason is probably that the Supreme Court is due to rule on a third runway at Heathrow, which has been turned down at all other government and judicial applications. So the regional airport operators are trying to get in ahead of any ruling that might prevent their growth. Even as half of all the world’s airliners sit motionless on aprons or in boneyards.

It’s a curious state of affairs when compared to shipping, and it shows how one perfectly competitive industry is more likely to foster innovation and successfully reach its mid-century ambitions than one which seeks favour, protection and subsidy while selling a commodity (transport miles) as a human right.

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