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At midday on Wednesday, 9 November 2011, I will be interviewed by BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur at the World Travel Market as part of World Responsible Tourism Day.

To mark the event, my publisher is offering a special deal on my book The Final Call.

Anyone attending can purchase the book for the discounted price of £6, which includes free UK p&p.  To order, please call 01206 255 800 and quote “WTM2011”.

A blog written for Comment is Free about Ed Miliband’s comments about how he will not act to curb aviation emissions because he doesn’t “want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly”…

Very interesting – and telling – words this week from Ed Miliband regarding the so-called “right to fly”. The climate change and energy secretary told the Guardian that he didn’t “want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly”, and would therefore not be seeking to include aviation within the government’s broad commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050.

“Where I disagree with other people on aviation is if you did 80% cuts across the board, as some people have called for on aviation, you would go back to 1974 levels of flying,” he said. Miliband picked out the airport within his own constituency, Doncaster Sheffield, as an example. “People in my constituency have benefited from being able to have foreign travel which, 40 years ago, the middle classes took for granted,” he said. “There are sacrifices and changes in lifestyle necessary. But the job of government is to facilitate them and understand people’s lives and what they value.”

What Miliband seems to be saying is that flying is now so important to people’s lives in the UK that it deserves to be treated as a special case. It should be largely immune to the tough targets and systematic transition that all other sectors are going to have to experience if exacting carbon reductions are ever to be achieved. So rather than have fair, across-the-board cuts, Miliband is firing the starter gun for every sector to throw up its hands and say that it too deserves special exemption. To take this to its logical conclusion, someone is going to have to make the decision about who deserves such favouritism.

If aviation is going to be allowed to grow and emit without restrictions, another sector is going to have to make up the shortfall. If we really love flying so much, who do we want this to be? The NHS? Universities? Local authorities? If we really want to start prioritising our most valued services and facilities in this manner, then we need to urgently have that discussion.

But I’m not comfortable whenever the class issue is thrown into the ring to support the aviation lobby’s argument. Miliband is the latest person to fall for this old chestnut. It has been a debating tool for years, but it never stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at Doncaster Sheffield airport, as Miliband is asking – even if it isn’t wholly representative. It accounted for less than half of 1% of the total number of UK passengers passing through our airports in 2007, according to the latest Civil Aviation Authority figures, but it does have the highest percentage – 94% – of so-called “leisure” travellers of all the UK airports. These are the types of passengers that come in for the most criticism when people are talking about the growth in discretionary flying over the past decade or so. (This category includes “visiting friends and relatives” – so-called VFRs – which is arguably the least discretionary of all the reasons to fly, but that often gets drowned out in this debate.)

What “class” are these passengers? And has there been a significant shift in their demographic profile over the years? ABC1-type analysis seems to largely ignored or viewed as inherently flawed these days, so let’s look at something most people understand – income. Civil Aviation Authority figures (pdf) for 2007/2008 say that the mean household income of leisure passengers using Doncaster Sheffield airport was £41,016. This compares to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, which state that the average UK household income in 2006/07 was £30,000. The mismatch doesn’t exactly lead you to shout “working class all aboard” – and this is for an airport you would consider to support Miliband’s argument given its higher-than-average volume of so-called “cheap flights”.

When the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University looked at the “socio-demographic characteristics of [UK] air passengers” in its 2006 report Predict and Provide (p29, pdf), it concluded that the “available evidence suggests that flying is largely undertaken by those in richer households, and that most of the growth in flying is coming from people in such households flying more often”. Again, it doesn’t exactly support Miliband’s argument that the skies are now awash with the working class, say, taking mini-breaks to Europe, or visiting their second homes abroad.

And all this in the week when the airline industry – already one of the most cosseted sectors in the world due to its advantageous tax breaks on fuel – is saying it is suffering an “annus horribilis“. Are we really going to fall for yet another well-orchestrated sob story from the world’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about a new price-comparison website that compares the environmental impact of flights as well as their price…

Price comparison sites now play such a major role in our travel choices that it’s hard to think of a time without them. They’ve helped to pull the rug out from under travel agents who used to be our only conduit to finding the best prices. It feels as if we’ve booted them out of their swivel chairs and taken their place at the bookings terminal instead.

It’s largely an illusion, of course. How do we really know that all the prices have been accurately and fairly compared? After all, the travel sector is notorious for its price volatility, where the cost of a flight or hotel can change by the minute. And how many sites are being compared when you make a search? Have any of them paid to be among the sites being compared? Have any been left out, as a result? The next logical leap will be a comparison site comparing price comparison sites. Don’t tell me, there’s one already out there.

You’re more than welcome to use this blog to list your favourite price comparison sites, or list your gripes, but that isn’t the purpose of this blog. Rather, it is to discuss the arrival of a new price comparison site – one that, yes, compares prices, but also compares the carbon footprint of the various airlines it lists when you make a search.

The Carbon Friendly Flight Finder is collaborative effort by The Carbon Consultancy, Global Travel Market and FlySmart.org and when I had a little play with it this morning it seemed to do pretty much what it says on the label. Type in a search for a return flight from, say, London Heathrow to New York JFK leaving this Saturday and returning a week later and it tells you that Opodo is currently offering the best deal with an Air France flight priced at £270. (The most expensive option is an Aeroflot flight offered by Travelocity priced at £2,807. The mind boggles.)

However, it also tells you that the Air France flight has a “carbon ranking” of “3”, compared to, say, KLM (“7) or Virgin Atlantic (“1”), with “1” being the best and “10” the worst. The Carbon Consultancy says that the carbon rankings for each airline are not based on the actual emissions of that particular flight, but on an assessment based on a wide range of factors. You can read its a detailed explanation. But I’ll save you the hassle: all it is saying that the carbon ranking it gives to each airline is little more than an educated guestimate.

I welcome seeing this additional information published right next to the price, but in reality we’re talking about very small differences in fuel efficiencies between the airlines, especially when comparing them over long-haul routes. The variables that make the real difference over the same distance are whether the flight is direct or has to first go via a hub (which the Carbon Friendly Flight Finder does factor in), or whether, if it’s short haul, you are travelling on a jet or a turboprop plane.

Rather than being given a rather vague ranking out of 10, I would prefer to see the actual listings of grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre travelled. And, further still, see this compared against, where they exist, other travel options such as trains, ferries, and coaches. (See Fred Pearce’s recent Greenwash column for a discussion about making just such comparisons.) I would also like to see the airline’s carbon rankings accurately reflect the fact that the carbon dioxide they emit is done at high altitude which has a significantly greater impact on the climate – the so-called radiative forcing multiplier – than emissions down on the ground. It is only by making such comparisons that an accurate picture can be painted of the various “carbon rankings” of the choices that lay before us.

There’s a danger of losing perspective of the fact that by far the best option is to reduce the amount of flying you do, wherever possible, rather than fretting about whether or not flying with British Airways is a little bit better in terms of emissions than, say, flying with Virgin Atlantic. Flying London to New York with either of them will still result in well over a tonne of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere per passenger. And if you want one extra comparison, that’s broadly equal to one month’s worth of emissions resulting from the (non-flying) lifestyle of an average Briton.

As is the case with carbon offsetting (which The Carbon Consultancy promotes), I fear that such initiatives only ever really end up providing a comfort blanket for those who don’t wish to engage with the hard-edged environmental realities that now circle over our holidaying habits. Do they really offer anything more than the dangerous illusion of “job done”?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website about the protests at Stansted Airport this morning…

When I first heard about protesters breaching the perimeter fence at Stansted airport on the radio this morning, my first reaction, given Plane Stupid’s previous actions, was to wonder why the campaign group hadn’t done something on this scale earlier in the year.

Protests of this nature had been effectively cleared for take-off in September by jurors at Maidstone Crown Court, who acquitted the so-called Kingsnorth Six of causing £30,000 worth of criminal damage while protesting at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent in October 2007. The protestors successfully argued, for the first time in a British court, that their actions had a lawful excuse because they were trying to protect against climate change-induced damage on a far greater scale. I’m sure Plane Stupid’s defence team are already pouring over the details of the trial.

The protest has caused, on average, 90 minutes’ worth of delays at the airport. In other words, not too dissimilar to any normal day at a British airport. Yet I heard people on the radio this morning putting the protestors on a par with murderous Islamist terrorists. And the protestors are accused of losing perspective? I can understand – as do the protestors themselves – that people find their actions annoying and disruptive, but that’s the point.

Non-violent direct action rubs against the grain of popular opinion in order to get itself noticed amid a sea of self-interest, apathy and day-to-day distractions. It is born out of desperation and frustration that the normal democratic processes have failed, are flawed, or are corrupted by vested interests, despite clear evidence that the current path is dangerous or unjust. How many people now see Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Emmeline Pankhurst as criminals rather than heroes, despite the fact they all broke the laws of their day to protest for what we now see as worthy causes?

As the protestors said this morning, they see their actions as a last resort having already spent years trying to use the lawful democratic processes. For the past 20 or so years, an ever-broader consensus of scientists has warned us of the self-induced dangers of climate change. Yet, following our political leaders, we continue to sleepwalk towards an avoidable (although the clock appears to be fast running down) destiny. Aviation has, justifiably in my view, been singled out by the protestors as a sector that is still far from internalising its environmental costs and that continues to increases its emissions with little hope of reversal. Stopping airports from expanding any further is a sure way to throttle any extra supply.

It is ironic that today, the new energy and climate change minister, Ed Miliband, who sits within a government that has been staunchly pro-aviation, should be calling for “popular mobilisation” and “countervailing forces” to help drive climate change further up the global political agenda.

“When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation,” he said. “Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.”

Well, he got his wish this morning.

A blog written for Comment is Free about the UK government’s decision to give the go-ahead to Stansted airport’s expansion plans…

Invest in spade manufacturers. That’s my hot tip for those of you looking for a punt during these uncertain times. For this is surely a wonderful time to be burying bad news.

There was certainly something of the Jo Moore’s about today’s announcement by Geoff Hoon, the fresh-off-the-carousel transport secretary, that Stansted airport is to be given the go-ahead to expand its passenger capacity. Would he have dared do so at any other time given that it was just 72 hours ago that the government’s committee on climate change, chaired by Lord Turner (some week he’s having what with his other job at the FSA), said that the UK’s carbon reduction target for 2050 should be raised from 60% to 80% and include shipping and aviation?

Airport expansion seems to make about as much sense this week as looking for good savings deals in Iceland. Even if you put climate change concerns aside – a near-impossible ask when it comes to airports, I admit – then airport expansion still seems to be a dud. With airlines going out of business by the week due to high fuel costs, and consumers pulling up the drawbridge on their spending (which, presumably, will curtail the urge to pop to Europe by plane for the weekend), the growth predictions made by the aviation industry – and lapped up by the present government – now seem to be more than a little wide of the mark. The current economic situation is actually presenting the government with the perfect opportunity to gracefully retreat from its unpopular and unwise airport expansion plans – and yet it pushes on like Douglas Haig at the Somme. The plans for Stansted and Heathrow’s third runway should really be dead in the water by now – for example, how and with whom is BAA now going to raise the funds for these projects? – but still they refuse to whither. I wonder if Ed Miliband, as the new secretary of state for climate change and energy, was even involved in the decision. To be honest, it tells us much about the government’s true convictions on climate change whether he was or he wasn’t involved.

My bet is that the third runway at Heathrow really must now be a lost cause for its ever-dwindling number of supporters. The tide has now almost fully turned against it – the politics, the economics, the environment. Stansted’s expansion is very different because it doesn’t require new asphalt to be laid, just an increase in the number of flights using its current runway. But never content, its owner BAA still pushes on with its predict-and-provide pleas for a second runway. If any good is to come out of the turbulence of recent weeks it will be that such plans will now have to make an urgent forced landing.

A Short Cut written for G2 about the first scheduled flight of the day to land at Heathrow airport…

Imagine a party in which the antics of 400 revellers had the capacity to disturb the sleep of two million people. The police would shut it down faster than you can say “Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003”, which is what gives the authorities the legal power to deal with noise at night.

Now imagine a Boeing 747-400 filled with 400 people audibly passing over the heads of, according to Department of Transport figures, an estimated two million people at around 5am each morning. Welcome to BA Flight 26, the first scheduled flight of the day to land at Heathrow airport.

It needs no introduction, however, to the residents who live directly under the flight path. BA Flight 26, which departs Hong Kong 13 hours earlier, is the 50-plus decibel early alarm call none of the residents ever requested. (The World Health Organisation says that more than 30 decibels of sleep disturbance has a “critical health effect”.) As all flight-path insomniacs will tell you, the first plane of the day joins the dawn chorus of birds, car alarms, cat fights and the early-to-work whistling neighbour as the most potent disturbers of sleep. That first approach of whining jet engines can signal the last hope of further decent sleep before the slide out of bed towards the nearest cup of coffee.

What makes it worse for Londoners is the knowledge that BA Flight 26 is just the first of an average 15 further flights legally allowed to land at Heathrow before 6am – the moment when night becomes day in the world of airport noise regulation. The only relief comes when the prevailing westerly winds shift and aircraft are forced to approach Heathrow from the west instead. But what is a relief to those in, say, Barnes becomes a curse for those in, say, Maidenhead. Tomorrow, Richmond, Wandsworth, and Windsor and Maidenhead borough councils will take their bid to stop night flights to the high court, claiming that some of these flights – which include BA Flight 26 – break the government’s own noise rules.

However, the cursed of London might just want to consider their brethren living under the Charles De Gaulle flight path in Paris. Due to the large volume of freight flights landing at the airport, up to 150 flights are allowed every night. Later this year, sleep-disturbed Parisians will travel to Strasbourg to argue that, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, their right to respect “for private and family life” is being violated by night flights. Many Londoners will no doubt raise their double-strength lattes in support.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website about the rising cost of jet fuel and its impact on the aviation industry…

For all the talk about how home heating and petrol pump prices are fast rising, there seems to be remarkably little comment – given our love affair with flying – about how runaway oil prices are hurting the airline industry. Within the past few weeks, a number of airlines have gone out of business – this weekend saw Eos, the business class-only airline operating routes between Stansted and the US, join the growing list. Eos follows its direct competitor Maxjet, as well as Oasis (which claimed it was the first long-haul, low-cost carrier when it began flying Hong Kong-London in late 2006 for as little as £75 each way), and four US-based carriers: ATA Airlines, Aloha, Skybus and Champion Air.

Not all of these failures can be attributed to rising jet fuel prices alone – the economic slowdown, credit crunch, and weak dollar are taking their toll, too – but it’s the sky-high operating costs that have tipped most of them over the edge. It is now surely just a question of when, not if, one or more of the well-known carriers hits serious turbulence by going bust, or turning to consolidations and mergers for protection, as typified by the recent Northwest/Delta lovefest as well as persistent talk – despite a denial from its president this weekend – of Continental hooking up with United and/or US Airways.

You only need to look at the price of jet fuel today compared to this time last year to see what’s causing the squeeze. According to the International Air Transport Association’s fuel price monitor, the price has increased 78.2% in the past 12 months. (That’s a global average: in Europe prices have increased by 84%, making it the world’s most costly region to buy jet fuel.) In the past month alone, it has risen 8.8%. IATA estimates that this rise has added $61bn to the industry’s total fuel bill for 2008 compared to 2007. And today we have the president of Opec talking about oil prices hitting $200 a barrel. Something clearly has to give, especially for an industry that famously runs on such tight margins.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that most airlines hedge their fuel costs, meaning that they are buying the fuel they need sometimes up to 18 months ahead of when they will actually need to consume it. Therefore, after “enjoying” a period in which they were partly shielded from the price spikes, many airlines are only now having to absorb the truly vertiginous fuel cost rises seen over the past year.

As with all fuel-dependent industries, the airlines now have to operate on an almost week-by-week basis. Just step back to the end of March and consider how low-cost carrier investors were spooked by the news of easyJet’s profits warning. What unsettled them most was the thought that easyJet was basing its projections on jet fuel being priced at $1,000 a tonne – a horrifying thought for investors. Back in February, both easyJet and Ryanair were using the price of $840 a tonne in their fiscal projections. However, today the price stands at $1,145 a tonne (about $3.46 a gallon), and with pressures such as the Grangemouth strike, continued unrest in Nigeria and increasing demand from Asia, the rises show no sign of relenting.

So what does this mean for passengers? Well, we may come to remember summer 2008 as the last time we got to fly abroad for our holidays “on the cheap”. The decade-long era of our holiday flight costing as little as one-night’s stay in a hotel, or less, is surely at an end. EasyJet, for example, says that it has hedged 40% of its summer 2008 fuel requirements at $750 a tonne, which means it still has a few months to go before it gets truly clobbered by the price rises. A month ago it predicted that if fuel reached $1,000 a tonne it would equate to adding $45m to its overall fuel bill for the second half of 2008. Given that the price has already far surpassed this symbolic mark, then it is clear that the costs are soon going to have to passed on to passengers in the form of hefty ticket price increases, or further spurious check-in and luggage charges.

Quite how high the cost of flying is likely to go no one seems too keen to say, but when you consider that an Airbus A320 – a favourite of the low-cost carriers – consumes about six gallons of jet fuel per seat per hour, you can begin to see how current price rises are going to impact on how much we currently pay to fly.

Many airlines, despite the threat to their competitiveness, have already bumped up their fuel surcharges – United doubled its own surcharge a fortnight ago – but now we are seeing some airlines admitting that they are about to imminently raise their overall ticket prices. Just today, for example, Qantas said it was going to add 3% to its prices from the beginning of May to cover the cost of fuel. As has already been seen with home heating and driving costs, it is presumably worth bracing yourself for double-digit rises in the coming months. After that, who knows?

This is all good news for environmentalists, of course. I, like many others, have long argued that the cost of flying needs to reflect its environmental cost and by doing so curb runaway demand, but I readily admit I never imagined that oil prices would bring about the price rises required in such short order – certainly years ahead of any likely emissions-trading costs, or “green” taxes. (Just imagine how much jet fuel would cost today if it was, like other fuel, actually subject to fuel duty and VAT, but that’s another debate altogether.) The free marketeers will be thrilled: the market, rather than the regulators, got to decide first.

The big question now is will market conditions get to decide the fate of the proposed third runway at Heathrow, too?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about the rise of the ‘long-haul minibreak’…

When did spending more than 14 hours in a plane over a long weekend suddenly become enjoyable, rather than a punishment that befalls only the hardiest of business travellers?

What have I missed? Are airport queues no more? Has in-flight dining suddenly become a gastronomic delight? Does everyone now get a fully reclining seat and limitless leg room? Have they found a cure for deep vein thrombosis? Is there a pill to pop to nullify jet lag?

I only ask because it seems that we have now entered an era where “long-haul minibreaks” are becoming the norm for a well-heeled section of British society. According to a recent survey by Halifax, last year 3.7 million Britons chose to fly to destinations seven hours away or more in the pursuit of leisure. The travel insurer predicts that this will increase by a third this year meaning that 4.9 million tourists from the UK will be jetting off to places such as Hong Kong, New York, Vancouver, Dubai, Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro on so-called “breakneck breaks”.

“Better airline quality, the lure of winter sun, favourable exchange rates, and cheaper long-haul flights have created a boom in demand for long-haul mini-breaks, with millions of us enduring long flights for a weekend break on the other side of the globe,” said Paul Birkhead, a senior manager at Halifax.

Other factors are also promising to make this new form of entertainment more attractive, such as the forthcoming “open skies” agreement for routes across the Atlantic which is predicted to make such routes even cheaper. Throw in the proposed third runway at Heathrow and second runway at Stanstead and those living in the south-east – which the survey identifies as where many of the breakneck breakers reside – and millions more could soon be spending the weekend sipping mojitos in Manhattan rather than mowing the lawn in Marlow.

It is all madness, of course. This is exactly why environmentalists – and increasingly a wide coalition of other groups – are fighting so hard to rein in the growth in aviation. The popular myth that they are trying to “stop the poor from flying” is a convenient smokescreen. As Civil Aviation Authority data shows (see chapter three of this report), there is actually very little evidence, if any, that the era of low-cost carriers has suddenly “democratised the skies” for one and all, as the airlines and their lobbyists would have you believe. Anyway, the fight to stop airport expansion isn’t about stopping those that fly once a year to the Med for their annual two-week holiday, it’s about curbing the still relatively small section of society that is now addicted to “binge flying” – those that fly three or more times a year for leisure. These are the people who are driving much of the growth in aviation in the UK – and its resultant emissions, which currently account for about 13% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas burden.

And the addiction analogy is useful in this context because the more we allow such trips to flourish, the more “hooked” the travellers become. That’s exactly why so many people are fighting airport expansion – it’s an attempt to cut off the supply at its source.

But beyond the compelling environmental arguments that should dissuade those that promote and consume long-haul minibreaks, there lies, I feel, another interesting phenomenon: the ever-increasing degree of importance most of us attach to where and how we travel for leisure when it comes to sending out the right signals about our social standing. Why would anyone travel to, say, Hong Kong for the weekend other than to show off in the office or among friends the next week that they had done so? The reality is that once you’d accounted for the flying time, you would have had time to do little more than have a couple of nice meals, spend a few hours shopping and catch some sleep in an identikit hotel room. Would you really have even “seen” Hong Kong in that short time? Was it really worth causing such a disproportionately high environmental impact over such a short period for such a superficial example of travel-by-numbers?

Friends of the Earth was quite right to label such journeys as “indulgent”, given the fact that few in the UK can still claim ignorance when it comes to knowing about aviation’s environmental legacy.

We will always have a “sod you” section of society that does what it wants regardless of the consequences to others, but my own view is that they should have to pay a high price for their current freedom to wilfully pollute. Yet more tinkering by the Chancellor with aviation taxation is expected today, but another far more important influence is soon set to collide with and disrupt the growth in aviation – rising oil prices. Many airlines now buy – or hedge – their fuel more than a year in advance to try to outrun price pressures. With some predicting that oil could reach $200 a barrel by the end of the year, the era of cheap flights could soon be at an end, with or without the campaigning efforts of environmentalists.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Environment website about Virgin’s biofuel test flight…

I doubt many of us had probably heard of babassu oil before a Virgin airline test flight, partly powered by biofuels, made the short hop from London to Amsterdam yesterday.

The oil, which is produced from a palm native to the Maranhão Babaçu forests in the eastern Amazon, is typically used as a cooking oil, but is also used to make medicines and soap.

Well, if test partners Virgin, Boeing and General Electric get their way, this versatile oil will be able to add another string to its bow: propelling humans around the globe at 900km an hour.
Along with coconut oil, babassu oil was blended – 20/80 – with traditional aviation-grade kerosene and fed into just one of the Virgin test plane’s engines. The other engines were powered normally and we can assume the test went well because there were no big splashes reported in the North Sea.

If this test flight had taken place about five years ago, I’m sure it would have received near universal praise. Back then, biofuels were being touted as the great “green” alternative to fossil fuels. But in recent years, the more we have examined biofuels, the more problems have appeared – particularly in relation to their claim to being “carbon neutral”.

Branson, a master of PR, doesn’t seem to have timed this latest high-profile stunt very well. Just last week, the UK government was putting the brakes on biofuels by ordering a review of their environmental and economic damage. In recent weeks, Science has published several damning papers about the effectiveness of using biofuels to reduce emissions. And just hours after the test flight landed safely, the Financial Times was reporting that the UN’s World Food Programme is considering rationing food aid to the world’s most needy because of spiralling food costs which are, in no small part, being driven up by the demand for biofuels – which, at present, are largely made from food crops.

Feeding a starving child, or powering a flight to New York? It should never be a contest, but, following Virgin’s test flight, it now is. The very thing that the critics of biofuels feared is now becoming a reality. (I wonder if the crew of Virgin Galactic‘s sub-orbital spacecraft will be pointing out the biofuel plantations below to space tourists when the first flights take off in the next couple of years?)

One of the reasons environmentalists and others are crying foul over this test flight is because Virgin originally stated that it wouldn’t be using a “first-generation feedstock” (most of which are produced from food crops such as corn and palm oil) to produce its biofuel. In the build-up to the test flight, Virgin had been suggesting that the feedstock would be derived from algae instead. But as many biofuel producers know all too well, it’s much cheaper and more convenient to produce biofuels from food crops.

Rather than wait until an algae-derived biofuel was ready – which would probably be something to herald – Virgin felt the need to jump the gun so it could still claim to be the first airline in the world to trial a biofuel. As a result, it will now justly get the flack for using a feedstock that should be feeding people instead.

The hunt will go on, though, for a “drop-in” replacement for kerosene – one that doesn’t require a huge and costly change in refuelling infrastructure. If the aviation industry is to keep growing at its current pace, and yet still manage to reduce its emissions burden, it is clearly going to need to keep trialling new fuels. And the key hurdle is finding one that can meet kerosene’s “high energy density” – in other words, its oomph. A hard task, indeed.

But even if someone did manage to produce, say, an algae-derived aviation fuel, we are still a long way from it ever being used to power commercial flights for the simple reason that the aviation industry, by necessity, is a highly risk-averse industry. No one wants to risk the lives of 300 people travelling at 30,000ft. Therefore, it would take at least a decade before any such fuel was passed as safe by regulators. It’s for this reason that most industry commentators see kerosene remaining the dominant aviation fuel for at least the next two to three decades – a period for which a continued fast growth in aviation emissions is predicted. So will its arrival be too little, too late?

Personally, I welcome research into new aviation fuels, but worry greatly that the current focus means that we’ll end up with an alternative fuel that ultimately presents more problems than solutions. The one solution that just doesn’t seem to be able to fly at present is simply reducing the number of planes we send up into the atmosphere. But that would require a political fuel no one has yet seen the likes of.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about NatureAir’s bold new claims…

I didn’t know it at the time, but I have flown with the “world’s first and only zero emissions airline”. But don’t get too excited: I’m not talking about a new paradigm in jet propulsion, or the revival of the airship. This airline still uses fossil fuels just like every other.

In the summer of 2006, while conducting interviews for my book The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays, I took a short flight from Punta Islita on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to the capital San Jose. I joined a dozen or so other passengers aboard one of NatureAir‘s de Havilland Twin Otters, thereby avoiding the best part of a day’s travel on Costa Rica’s notoriously bad roads. The flight was memorable for me because it carried us over some stunning rainforests and mangroves at a low enough altitude that you could appreciate some of the detail below.

What I didn’t know at the time – most other airlines would be ramming such marketing gold dust down your throat at any given opportunity – was that the airline supports a range of local projects in Costa Rica aimed at reducing emissions. The most notable of which is a scheme whereby 200 hectares of rainforest on the Osa Peninsula have been protected from loggers. This, the airline calculates, compensates for roughly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide that it has emitted into the atmosphere since 2004.

I’m highly sceptical about carbon offset schemes – and NatureAir’s actions are no different really from those of any firm offering offsetting – principally because they often make decidedly dubious claims, they don’t encourage us to address our polluting ways but only disguise them, they lack independent verification, and rarely can they demonstrate “additionality” (that these actions wouldn’t have been undertaken without the offset scheme). But I am in favour of remedial environment projects that are located close to the problem. It makes sense for a Costa Rican airline seeking to atone for its carbon sins to fund and nurture environmental projects in its own backyard – even if I don’t buy the claim that the airline’s emissions can be said to be “zero” as a result. Nonetheless, the projects still appear to be worthwhile in their own right.

When I watch the tourism industry racing to paint itself green, I do wonder why more within the industry don’t try to play the “local” card, as you see happening so much within the food industry. I’m sure it would lead to a lot less cynicism about the true motivations and usefulness of offsetting. Rather than pay a sum to a faceless offset scheme, as most airlines now offer their customers the chance to do, I’m sure passengers would much rather know that this money was being spent on projects at the destination, thereby helping to improve the often strained relationship between the visitor and the visited. Perhaps a visit to such projects could be part of the trip?

The fundamental point is that we like to know where our money is being spent – and that it is being spent well. For example, there are very few fans of Advanced Passenger Duty (APD), the departure tax levied on the UK’s outbound passengers, outside of the Treasury, even though it claims to be an environmentally motivated tax. But if the £2bn revenue it raises each year was ring-fenced for certifiable and visible environmental projects, then it would instantly achieve much more support from travellers.

A fast-growing number of us appreciate that we must start paying the true environmental cost of our travel, but we are only ever likely to support the necessary green taxes that would curb the current runaway growth in emissions if we know and can see they are directly funding projects that also reduce or mitigate these rising emissions.

In Costa Rica, NatureAir is able to achieve a lot of “buy in” in relation to its offsetting initiative with its customers because passengers can look down and see the very thing that is worth saving below them. Just how you achieve that on, say, a mundane transatlantic flight is certainly a challenge, but the fundamental point remains: travellers must see that the tax hikes that will inevitably affect air travel in the coming years are truly benefiting the environment they have been introduced to protect.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website on the day the A380 took off on its first commercial flight…

So the big bird has finally flown. The first commercial flight of the new A380 took off from Singapore this morning headed for Sydney, with a belly full of eager-eyed passengers, some donating up to $10,000 to charity for their place in aviation history. There has been so much fanfare accompanying this new superjumbo from Airbus that, to be honest, it’s a relief that she has at last pulled away from the departure gate with her first paying passengers. If this really was a paradigm shift in flying then it might warrant all this attention, but in reality it illustrates to me just how little we’ve travelled in terms of aviation innovation since 1970 when the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” first took to the air. It hardly compares to the “leap forward” made by Concorde’s first commercial flight just a few years later. I’m sure there will be many who marvel at this new plane’s engineering prowess, but the thing that really counts today is can this plane get as many people from A to B using as little fuel as possible? Much has been made about the A380’s green credentials and most of it, sadly, has been vastly overblown. The plane’s basic principle is sound – if something is going to take to the air it might as well have as many people on board as possible to maximise the fuel used. But on closer inspection the Airbus claims lose a lot of their lustre. Airbus’s website says that the plane will burn 2.9 litres of fuel per passenger for every 100km travelled, or, put another way, it will emit 75 grammes of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. This, says Airbus, is a better fuel efficiency than a hybrid car. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But how did it arrive at that figure? Well, I couldn’t find an explanation on the website, and I called the UK office but no one returned my call. So I’m reliant on the National Center for Public Policy Research in the US, who did manage to extract the details from Airbus. Airbus told them that the measurements were based on the A380 carrying 555 passengers at a cruising speed of 900km – but with no luggage or cargo on board. Singapore Airlines has said that its A380s will be set up in the traditional three-class configuration, but will be carrying “less than 480 passengers”. This is because it wants to give passengers more space – including those paying big bucks to travel in its much-heralded “12 ultra-luxurious suites”. (The A380 can, in theory, carry 853 passengers, but it is highly unlikely that any airline will utilise this, except perhaps on some short-range internal routes in, say, China and Japan.) Given that most of these passengers will have hand luggage and a suitcase or two, you can safely assume that the quoted fuel efficiency is going to be less impressive than it first appears. And don’t forget that it is rare for a passenger flight to take off without cramming commercial cargo on board too – or that carrying capacity among the so-called legacy carriers who are ordering up these planes (not in the quantity that Airbus had hoped for) is lucky to ever break through the 80% barrier. This could seem to be unnecessary nitpicking, but the far bigger concern for me is that Airbus predicts these planes will be in service for 40-50 years. With other airlines also investing heavily in Boeing’s rival Dreamliner, which has its own much-puffed “eco” claims, we can safely assume that these two planes will be the principal workhorses of the skies for the next several decades. These are the planes that will serve the huge growth that is predicted for the aviation industry over this period – and is what has triggered the huge concern about aviation’s fast-increasing environmental impact. This goes a long way to quashing any realistic talk of some huge techno fix laying just around the corner – blended-wing designs, hydrogen fuel cells etc – that would mean we would be able fly without a thought for the atmosphere that our plane carves through. Are airlines which have just spent billions of dollars on new planes really going to be in the market for experimental planes in the near future? Also, look just how long it has taken for the A380 to come to market. Aviation innovation takes decades to literally get off the ground – and so does fuel design – for the simple reason that regulators don’t like to take risks when hundreds of people are being flown at 30,000ft. Therefore, all this talk of biofuels for planes is fanciful in the short- to medium-term – and just look at all the hubbub that biofuels are already causing when it comes to verifying their true environmental credentials. The plain truth is that while these tweaks in efficiency are obviously welcome don’t believe the hype that they are anything more than just tweaks. That flight from London-Sydney, or wherever, will still come at a considerable carbon cost, whichever plane you are travelling in. Somehow getting fewer people into the skies is the key, not beckoning people onboard with inflated eco claims.

To comment, click through to the Guardian’s website here …

This Saturday (October 13) I’m taking part in a debate at Tourism Concern‘s AGM entitled, ‘Is it the Final Call for Tourism?’ It is taking place inside the Graduate Centre at the Tower Building, London Metropolitan University. Yes, I know it clashes with some important football match or other, but it promises to be an interesting and lively afternoon. The debate ‘kicks off’ at 2.45pm. Here’s how Travelmole is billing it (although I would add that I have never said that “tourism will indeed ruin the world!”, but we can certainly debate that notion on Saturday)…

Leo Hickman, author of the Final Call meets with Frances Tuke of ABTA to discuss whether it really is the final call for tourism – Tourism Concern, Saturday 13 October at London Metropolitan University.
Leo Hickman, journalist and author of the recent controversial book “The Final Call”, ABTA’s Press Officer, Frances Tuke, Lamin Bojan from Gambia Tourism Concern and Peter DeBrine, Deputy Director of the International Tourism Partnership will be discussing whether it really is the final call for tourism. The discussion is hosted by Tourism Concern and will be chaired by journalist and broadcaster Alison Rice
The discussion, which is bound to be lively, will focus on the impact of travel, and whether, as Leo Hickman claims in his book, tourism will indeed ruin the world!
Focusing on the excesses of tourism and its unsustainable growth, Hickman covers Dubai and its ultimate homage to consumerism, Thailand and sex tourism, climate change, China’s phenomenal tourism growth, the receding glaciers in Switzerland, countries that greenwash their tourism as a marketing tool, developers that pay no heed to the rights of their workforce and the fact that there are no checks and balances and no moves towards any regulation.
Tourism Concern would welcome the presence of those working in the tourism industry to contribute to the discussion. The audience will be encouraged to have its say. There has already been some strong debate between Hickman and Jeremy Skidmore in Travel Mole. Saturday, 13th October is the opportunity for others to join in.

Here’s a blog I wrote for the Guardian’s Travel website yesterday. To add a comment, click on this link…

Breaking news: Butlins are replacing their red coats with green coats. No, not really, but the British holiday camp operator has come up with a novel way to try and drum up more business – it is trying to convince us that to do our bit for the environment we should give up our foreign flights and holiday at one of its camps instead. (And there I was thinking that its line up of round-the-clock family entertainment was enough to pull in the punters.)

Butlins is puffing out its chest this week as its visitor figures for this year are up 5% on last year, despite the bad weather. It has commissioned a survey by Tickbox.net to find out why some of us are shunning foreign flights and choosing to holiday at home instead – but is a little surprised to see that the reasons given rarely include “to save the planet”. In fact, only 1% of the 1,500 respondents gave this as their reason. Much more popular were airport delays (39%), luggage restrictions (27%), driving on the wrong side of the road (11%), foreign food (9%) and fear of flying (7%).

“Given current concerns over climate change, it’s a surprise that people are so much more deterred from going abroad by everyday things like driving on the wrong side of the road and not liking foreign food,” says Richard Bates, managing director of Butlins. “But the good news is that the overall net effect will be a reduction in people’s carbon footprints.” (I totally get the hatred of airport delays, but is “driving on the wrong side of the road” really worth giving up a trip abroad for? Irrationality, evidently knows no bounds.)

Butlins’ top brass may be scratching their heads, but it comes as no surprise to me that people don’t cite “climate change'” as a reason for giving up flying. I have never bought this idea that enough people are voluntarily going to raise their hands in the check-in queue and forego their flight just because you’ve made a convincing argument about aviation’s environmental impact. No one dares take a bone from a dog once it is in its mouth.

The people who do volunteer are always going to remain a single-percentage-figure phenomenon. That’s precisely why there is so much political discussion about green taxes for aviation.

Flying quite simply has to be much more expensive than it is now before a significant number of people start making greener holiday choices. Remember that the large majority of people who fly in the UK are the affluent middle class – there is little, if any, evidence that cheap flights have suddenly filled the skies with “the poor” enjoying multiple trips abroad each year, as the aviation lobby’s argument says. And even if that were true, it still isn’t a strong enough argument against price hikes as an effective way of deterring people from flying.

Some form of demand management is desperately required to slow down the runaway growth that aviation is experiencing due to artificially low pricing. Green taxation seems to be the best short-term answer, bar not building any more runaways.

Groups such as Aviation Environment Federation say that surveys show that green taxes would have to reach as much as £75 per flight before they start to have a serious impact on demand. The bottom line in this – as with any polluting act – is that the cost of flying should represent its cost to the environment, something it clearly does not do at the moment.

If, for argument’s sake, you accept Sir Nicholas Stern’s estimate that the environmental cost of each tonne of CO2 we emit should be priced at $85 (£45), then you can start to put a sensible environmental price on aviation. Therefore, one London-Miami return flight emitting broadly two tonnes of CO2 per passenger would need to add £90 to the current price – a hike that would surely make many passengers rethink the need to do that journey. (And this is ignoring the so-called “uplift multiplier”, which accounts for the additional climate change impact of emitting the pollution at 30,000ft – according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we would need to multiply the CO2 impact of aviation by a factor of 2.7.)

Crucially, I think that any revenue raised should be ring-fenced for environmentally positive initiatives such as grants for improving the energy efficiency of your home, or simply lead to tax cuts elsewhere so that green taxes are seen as “revenue neutral”. This way you at least have a chance of bringing some of the electorate with you. A huge mistake was made with the recent rise in Air Passenger Duty (APD) in that it convinced no one – not even environmentalists – that it was anything other than a cynical act of revenue raising by the chancellor.

It amuses me that today easyJet is trying to argue in its new report called Towards Greener Skies: The Surprising Truth About Flying And The Environment that the no-frills airlines such as itself already pay the full environmental costs of their flights more than four times over, due to being disproportionately hit by APD. It is instead arguing for a tax that reflects that some airlines – including easyJet, just in case you were wondering – operate less emitting fleets than others.

“The time has come to scrap APD and replace it with a ‘polluter tax’ that has at its heart a very simple notion – those that fly on airlines that pollute less, like easyJet, should pay less,” says easyJet’s chief executive Andy Harrison.

I don’t disagree with this sentiment at all, but we are talking about a saving of probably no more than a few pounds, pence even, due to the marginal differences in fuel efficiency between the different fleets. It is simply nonsense to say that easyJet passengers already pay more than four times the environmental cost of their flight. No matter how much you want to cook the figures, the simple truth is that we all need to start flying less – and 66% of flying by UK passengers is for discretionary leisure purposes – than we do now if we are ever to be serious about trying to reduce our carbon emissions.

But if you’re not sold on the idea of green taxes being applied to aviation, what else would you propose to reduce demand? Or will you not let anything – not even climate-change concerns – get in the way of your next holiday flight?

Here’s an interesting article in the Seattle Times about current thinking within the aviation industry regarding the prospects of biofuels ever replacing kerosene as the fuel of choice for powering planes. The message, as ever, is don’t get your hopes up…

A Seattle-Washington, D.C., flight consumes 29 gallons of jet fuel per passenger, says Boeing. That would require a half-acre of soybeans.

“You would have to plant an area the size of Florida with soybeans to provide a 15 percent blend of jet fuel” for the whole U.S. aircraft fleet, said Dave Daggett, who heads energy and emissions research at Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ product-development unit. “Clearly that’s not going to be appropriate.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Climate Camp protest at Heathrow, I was asked to participate in a debate on BBC2’s Newsnight. I’m not too sure why someone would want to put this on Youtube, but they have…

The Guardian published a comment piece by me on Saturday to tie in with the Climate Camp protests taking place this week at Heathrow. The piece looks at how much of the money we spend on holiday actually ‘sticks’ to the destination.

It will be a case of “heads down and don’t look up” for holidaymakers flying from Heathrow next week, if they want to avoid catching the disapproving eye of climate camp protesters gathered at the perimeter fence. But expect some of the tourists to reject the niggling twinge of eco-guilt – a twinge 93% of us now experience when travelling by plane, according to a survey by Lonely Planet this week – as they pass along this most modern walk of shame by offering the following soundbite to TV news crews: “If we all stopped flying abroad, it would destroy their economies, wouldn’t it?” It’s a popular refrain among those defending aviation’s right to unrestricted growth, but do we really sprinkle gold dust on each destination we visit?… continues

The Irish Times website is subscription only so I can’t provide a simple click-through link, but the paper recently wrote very positively about The Final Call. Here’s just a taster…

[Hickman’s] latest book, The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays, is an excellent and thoroughly compelling analysis of flight-related tourism…[It] deserves to be read by those of us lucky enough to be able to fly on a regular basis. As Hickman points out, flying is not a necessity; it’s a luxury. Only five per cent of the world’s population have ever travelled by plane. Being an international tourist is a rare privilege, and Hickman’s book is a sobering, thoughtful and intelligent reminder that it is a privilege we need to be forcefully reminded not to take for granted.

As a result of the article, I’ve been asked to speak about the book on RTE Radio 1’s Today with Tom McGurk on the morning of Wednesday, August 1.

Now the pilots are having their say about the environmental impact of flying. “Pilots have long felt aggrieved that their industry is being used as a scapegoat for global warming”, says a new report commissioned by the British Air Line Pilots’ Association. “They have been particularly annoyed about two serious misconceptions – that air transport is the biggest polluter (which it is not) and that the industry is highly subsidised (again,which it is not).”

I agree on the first point, of course, but the second point is a little disingenuous to say the very least, but we’ll let that go as there’s a much better point the report makes that’s worth zooming in on.

“Modest reductions in road transport, electricity usage from power stations and improvements in the home would allow for aviation emissions…There are other measures which could and should be taken to reduce CO2 emissions and allow for continued air travel.”

So we’re back once again to the old “we’re a more important part of the economy than anyone else and should be allowed unrestricted growth regardless of the negative impacts” chestnut. It would be interesting to see just this question put to the vote, but until that time we should at least make the cost of flying represent its cost to the environment. Personally, I don’t think there should ever be any escaping the “polluter pays” principle. Even if you as self-important as the aviation industry.

A rant has been posted on Travelmole against travellers concerned about the environmental impact of their trips. The author, Jeremy Skidmore, has form for this kind of contrarian outburst – and he can say whatever he likes, of course – but it is a little worrying that a widely read industry website such as Travelmole should choose to post such comment pieces without at least balancing things up a little with alternative viewpoints. It says a lot to me about just how far the industry has yet got to go before “getting” this whole subject, let alone starting to tackle it. Here’s a little taster…

If, like me, you will not give a second thought about the impact on the environment of your holiday, you are not alone. Despite all the hype to the contrary, a new survey has shown that two thirds of Britons do not care about their carbon footprint. Indeed, people aspire to long haul holidays to relax from their stressed lives and worry most about their accommodation not living up to scratch or that their luggage will go missing. I recycle and use energy saving light bulbs (and would advise everyone to do so), but I’m certainly not going to stop flying to all parts of the world on business and pleasure. Most people feel the same way, partly because we’re selfish and partly because we are unconvinced about the impact of aviation on the environment, or indeed ‘climate change’ in general…

It strikes me that the airlines might be on to a sticky wicket with their new attempts to prove their ‘green’ credentials. The latest tactic is to use the boast of ‘our fleet is greener than their fleet’ and urge travellers to fly with them because their planes offer marginally superior fuel efficiency. Just look at Flybe’s attempt to reappropriate the EU’s energy efficiency chart found on most white goods and cars. The Telegraph also has easyJet’s chief executive Andy Harrison pushing a similar line today in an interview on its business pages

There are 700 aircraft built before 1990 and they are 20pc less efficient than today’s aircraft,” he says, naming “semi-bankrupt national airlines” such as Alitalia and flag-carriers such as British Airways and Iberia as major culprits.

Sure, every little helps – as could be argued with the launch over the weekend of Boeing’s Dreamliner – but these ‘per passenger kilometre’ efficiency savings are completely blown out of the water (or should that be air?)  by the growth predictions for the industry. It’s a bit like trying to argue that it’s better to empty a bath with a thimble instead of just pulling the plug – the ‘plug’ being fewer passengers and planes in the skies.