Does bigger really mean better?

For ordinary travellers, there will be more waiting for food, more on-board noise, and less privacy
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The Independent Online

The debut of the world's largest plane in Toulouse this week was an opportunity for Messrs Blair, Chirac and Schröder to shake hands looking happier than usual as they basked in some good news. Together with Spain, 'Old' Europe was parading a glorious example of co-operation, technical innovation, job creation and goodness knows what else with the unveiling of Airbus 380.

The debut of the world's largest plane in Toulouse this week was an opportunity for Messrs Blair, Chirac and Schröder to shake hands looking happier than usual as they basked in some good news. Together with Spain, 'Old' Europe was parading a glorious example of co-operation, technical innovation, job creation and goodness knows what else with the unveiling of Airbus 380.

This super-plane is larger than its American rival, the Boeing 747, and uses less fuel, carrying a maximum of 850 passengers versus 410 on the Boeing. With heavily subsidised development, the consortium behind it already has 149 orders from 11 different passenger airlines, and flights between London and Singapore start next year.

The A380 is truly a communal effort, with the Welsh servicing the engines and making the wings, the Germans providing the fuselage, and the tail being manufactured in Spain. I'm as pleased as the next person to hear that jobs in engineering are staying in Europe and that depressed parts of Britain are competing for and winning important contracts like this one.

But behind all the crowing about beating the yanks (Boeing are developing a smaller aircraft, the "dreamliner", to replace the 757 and 767, carrying between 230 and 300 passengers), I have a niggling suspicion that here's one more example of bigger not necessarily meaning better.

Sure, this wonderful new airbus has the space on its two decks for gyms, casinos, showers and private bedrooms for the rich and those whose employers are paying. But for most economy travellers, there will be virtually no difference whatsoever in the cramped conditions they currently suffer - seats on the airbus are just one inch wider than on existing rival planes. And you can forget about more legroom, because Virgin (who have ordered a total of 12 planes in two stages) claim research indicates that economy travellers prefer to have more places to visit in the air than a larger personal space to stretch out in. They would say that, wouldn't they?

This new generation of massive planes require terminals to be rebuilt to handle their cargo, luggage and disembarking passengers - already work has started at Heathrow's Terminal 3. The A380 needs stronger runways and more turning space because it is heavier and has a wider wingspan than existing jets. Then there's the question of quality time on board - I am sure that for first- and business-class passengers, this will be an attractive option with work spaces and better beds. But for ordinary travellers, there will be more waiting for food, more on-board noise, a long time to disembark and a lack of privacy.

Next month we will hear the findings of the judicial review set up last December to hear objections to the Government's White Paper on Aviation. This week has been the turn of property developers and building consortiums who feel that the proposed expansion of Gatwick and Stansted will affect their plans to construct new homes. (Which, funnily enough, Mr Prescott is always telling us we need more of). Mr Justice Sullivan has heard from groups objecting to the increased noise that will emanate from the new terminal at Heathrow, and from the councils of Hillingdon and Wandsworth over whose airspace one plane a minute currently roars from dawn to well after dark. Many other campaigners and pressure groups have objected to the Government's aviation White Paper on environmental and noise grounds.

Nobody, it has to be said, really expects that the review will alter the plans to turn the South-east of England into one of the busiest air spaces in the world. Now the A380 airbus will mean not just longer runways but endless refurbishment of existing buildings too.

The Government cannot afford the airbus to fail - 700 will have to be sold before anyone starts to recoup the investment, and costs so far are £1bn over budget. So it's easy to see why this week's spectacular unveiling (with a flashy show costing £1.4m) outdid the lavish launch of Concorde.

It is predicted that air travel world-wide will double by 2020 - a chilling thought. But is building huge planes that use slightly less fuel per passenger and are only fractionally quieter than existing jumbos the answer?

I would predict that within a decade most business journeys will be redundant. Online conferencing and new technology will mean that physically travelling all the way out to an airport, going through two hours of security checks, and then sitting, playing poker, taking a shower or sleeping for 14 hours to get to Singapore or Los Angeles is an arcane (not to mention exhausting) way of doing business.

The very rich will continue to buy and operate charter planes for both privacy and security. The rest of us ought to be asking ourselves whether cheap flights on small airlines or intercontinental trips on huge planes add anything whatsoever to our lives. What should our criteria for leisure and pleasure be in the next decade? Cattle class or personal space? A beach hut in Phuket or an isolated cabin in the Highlands? Sun and skin cancer, cheap drugs and tawdry girly bars in a Third World country or self-catering, walking, cultural tours closer to home?

The rise of budget airlines has meant that costs have been stripped to the bone, comfort has been sacrificed together with any sense of style or enjoyment during the airborne part of the journey. It already takes 30 minutes to walk to most gates at Heathrow - do we really think that represents progress? We fill up these jumbos and airbuses to transport us to parts of the world where we lie exhausted on loungers for two weeks, too shattered to take in the local culture and too strapped for cash to leave our all-inclusive hotel compound.

We're not really contributing to the local economy in any meaningful way - changing restrictive trade tariffs would do far more long-term good. Tourism is fast becoming the worst way for any underdeveloped country to expand - it's prone to fickle fashions in travel, natural disasters, and investment by foreign businesses which seek to turn every resort into a homogenised paradise.

Somewhere along the line we ought to consider what this huge expansion in air traffic, caused by mass tourism, really means for the one third of the British population who live in the footprint of the pollution engendered by it. The fumes and noise endured by most residents in south-west London or around Gatwick and Stansted at present are already quite disgusting. Quite why we, of all countries, should have decided that our future lies as a giant airport terminal to the rest of the world is beyond belief.

With the proposal for a new toll motorway from London to Birmingham it is clear that New Labour cares not one whit about the quality of life enjoyed by their voters. They've seen the future and it's bigger than ever.

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