Cheapflights executive chairman Hugo BurgeAs a proponent of flying, I find it a bit irksome to see it demonised as the enfant terrible of irresponsible consumerism.

It is perhaps unfortunate that it is left to a person that has a vested interest in the health of the aviation industry to present a balanced view, but maybe that is just the way things work.

There are well-rehearsed defences of aviation. Its share of the world’s carbon footprint is actually only 2%; farming, driving cars and heating your house are huge contributors too. But there are other good arguments for it too.


Force for good

We can pick on flying for political or partisan ends, but I believe it makes the world a better place.

The incredible human feat of engineering that led to the revolution in flying in the 20th century also has the potential to make the world more united, understanding and egalitarian.

Times of economic hardship are historically synonymous with isolationism, aggression and fear.  Flying has a crucial role to play in keeping the world connected and talking with each other.

This is not a call to arms for massive binge flying, but a call to look at aviation in a global and balanced context.

  • Travel is a force for understanding: A new generation of well-travelled people has arguably led to a greater understanding and concern for issues such as the environment, international trade and poverty.
  • Travel is a force for development: Flying shrinks the world. Countries that are cut of from flying are cut off from the opportunity for investment and development. 
  • Flying is more democratic than it ever has been: The current cheap prices may not last and flying will probably become more expensive again, so we need to invest now to ensure that it doesn’t become the preserve of the elite and wealthy. To travel the world should be a common aspiration and a right that everyone has the opportunity to share in.


Need to invest

What are the realistic travel alternatives to flying? There really are none for mid or long-haul journeys unless time is not a factor, but trains are a short-haul alternative.

I’m a proponent of flying, but believe we should use trains. Investment in any travel infrastructure is good, and we would all benefit from a fantastic domestic and pan-European network.

But given that for mid to long-haul destinations flying is the only realistic method of transport, aviation needs more investment, not less, in order to be more efficient. 

More runways can help the environment, as they cut down on circling, and improved regional airports will cut down on short hops.

Better regulation of air traffic controls will also help cut delays and improve routeing, and modern aircraft will be more efficient.


Tax burden

Flights should obviously accept some portion of the tax burden, but fragmented regulation and heavy taxation – such as the UK’s APD which punishes passengers less able to pay – will hamper advances.

Yes, aviation fuel is not subject to VAT but, unlike the public road and rail industries, aviation is not subsidised and more than pays for its infrastructure.

Economically, we also need to maintain physical connectivity with the world. Europe and the US will be less important in the coming century than the last, and to keep up we need to remain connected. A negative view of flying and investment in flying will not be good for our economic or cultural futures.


Responsible sector

The flying industry is keen to be responsible. Its leading environmental body, Sustainable Aviation, has shown that over the next 40 years it can reduce its environmental impact while carrying more passengers.

Iata figures show moves in the right direction, with efficiency measures already resulting in lower CO2 levels.

We also need more research into the causes of global warming to assess the validity of concerns and ensure we address greenhouse gases wherever they originate.

I hope, like me, you believe that flying is good and has the opportunity to make the world a better place. 

And when you hear someone giving flying a black eye, all I ask is that they put it in context and remember the host of positive things it offers.

Travel Weekly Aviation Issue - March 26 2009This article appeared in a special aviation-themed issue of Travel Weekly edited by Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgway