Eyjafjöll and the vulnerability of aviation

The eruptions of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjöll, last month saw severe disruption to air transport across Europe, affecting the return of many holidaying and international students to the UK. Perhaps more importantly, the enforced respite prompted a reflection on our addiction to flying, whether it be for cheap holidays for importing cut flowers. It is easy to take aviation for granted and to fly with impunity. But Eyjafjöll highlighted the need to seriously consider the alternatives.

Peter Lockley of the World Wildlife Fund claims that in the last few weeks people have embraced sustainable solutions. The volcano benefitted UK holiday resorts (doubtless helped by the nice weather), and the video-conferencing industry saw sales soar as businesses adapted to the situation. They will need to do this much more in future because of the broad-ranging impacts of climate change and the fact that natural resources are increasingly scarce.

In March the High Court ruled that the Labour government’s plan to build a third runway at Heathrow needed to be re-assessed, and although the implications of the judgement have been hotly debated by jubilant environmental groups and dismissive ministers, it will certainly complicate airport expansion. But do not be fooled by the Conservatives’ disinterest in expanding Heathrow: they are focusing instead on the new aviation front line of London City, Manchester and our local, Birmingham International.

The environmental issue is paramount for the opposition movement. Aviation is the fastest growing cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists from Kings College London used the no-fly period to prove that airports themselves (through take-offs, for example) cause significant levels of pollution. Moreover, a recent report from Engineering the Future highlighted the remarkable amount of ‘embedded water’ in all the products we import, often from extremely dry countries. Of course some will argue that economies such as Kenya’s depend on air freight exports, but the worrying environmental issues remain.

There are also strong economic arguments against the growth of aviation. The jobs created by airport expansion are far fewer in number than those suggested in the exaggerated and questionable reports cited by pro-flying lobbyists. Indeed, between 1998-2004 direct airport employment actually went down, despite passenger numbers increasing by 30 per cent. Airlines are getting very good at minimising staff numbers whilst increasing custom. Moreover, in terms of its supposed contribution to the local economy, the expansion of aviation in fact creates a ‘tourism deficit’ as more people leave the country to spend their money abroad than vice versa. In the West Midlands this equated to minus £1,680 million in 2005, which translates to roughly 88,000 jobs.

Despite many obstacles to the extension of Birmingham International’s runway, chief executive Paul Kehoe is adamant that it will go ahead. So several Warwick students and graduates joined up with the direct action group Plane Stupid and Birmingham Friends of the Earth on a bike ride protest on Saturday 8 May. ‘Ride Down the Road’ was a legal reclaiming of the streets: “We’re not disrupting traffic. We are traffic.” A big issue with the expansion of BIA is that Birmingham City and Solihull councils are facilitating it by committing to fund the £25 million plus diversion of the A45 Coventry road. This investment simply cannot be justified at a time when public services such as hospitals and school are facing cuts. Seventeen of us cycled from Birmingham Council Hall to the airport’s arrivals lounge, mostly along the A45 itself, braving the cold and wet and entertained by sporadic police escorts and a bike-towed sound system.

The obvious alternative to flying is high-speed rail. In France, the TGV Mediterranean, established in 2001, had replaced the Easyjet Paris-Marseille flight by 2006. During Warwick’s Go Green Week in term two, the creator of ‘The Man in Seat 61’ website Mark Smith, in addition to deconstructing the arguments that flying is much easier and cheaper, stressed the experiential advantages of train travel. Don’t wait for the next eruption to give it a try!


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