Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Thomas Sutcliffe

Tom Sutcliffe: It's time to admit flying is a luxury

Forgive me Gaia for I have sinned – or rather I'm about to. This weekend I'm flying to Washington with a son – an 18th-birthday present inspired by his passion for the West Wing – and at a stroke every climate-friendly choice I've made in the last few years has been blown. No point feeling smug about driving a Toyota Pious (as my children mockingly call it). No real point either in wondering whether the solar water panels on the roof are ever likely to justify their existence or patting myself on the back for a quasi-religious devotion to recycling. I have, of course, paid the surcharge for a carbon offset, but if I'm honest I don't want to look too closely at the mechanisms of that scheme for fear of discovering that its only effectiveness is in persuading people to overcome their doubts about taking a flight in the first place. And there's absolutely no good pretending that this trip is an unavoidable necessity because it isn't. It's for fun and – beneath shifting and variable levels of guilt – I'm looking forward to it. Even the flying bit.

I make this declaration because I want to make fun of Willie Walsh, the British Airways boss who told the BBC recently that people don't fly because they like it but because they have to. Walsh, below, was talking principally about business travellers and attempting – utterly unconvincingly, I thought – to make the case that it was only with the deepest reluctance that business travellers jet off to the far side of the world. This is a fairly commonplace fantasy and one that's often repeated by business people. "Oh God", they say, "I've got to go to Tokyo next week and then catch a connecting flight to New York," as if they're describing having to clean out the grease trap in a fast-food restaurant. We know that they're boasting, and so do they deep down – since while air travel per se long ago shed any association with sophistication and privilege the airlines have done everything in their power to throw a veil of glamour over its premium offerings.

And broadly it has worked. "We've not in any way tried to undermine video-conferencing," insists Walsh. But that's simply not true. Every advert that stresses the vital edge that a meat-space meeting can give you, every commercial that stresses the luxury that awaits the business traveller in the air, every extra privilege granted when your frequent flyer card tips from gold to platinum, reinforces the sense that the princes of industry fly rather than video. High mileage equates to high status. And even if Willie Walsh feels he can't openly admit this (despite recently adding a business only service to New York which is even less defensible in ecological terms) not all his employees are so cagey. "We need to get customers moving and give people a reason to travel and the tools to travel with," Abi Comber, BA's manager for brand proposition and insight told Marketing recently. I thought they already had reasons for travelling, though, reasons so pressing that they had no choice but to endure the horrors of vintage wines, a lie-flat bed and the complimentary chauffeur at the other end?

There's an easy way to check whether Willie's right though. Just pass an ecological sumptuary law grounding any plane with business or first class sections and see how the definition of business necessity would change overnight. I'd still be flying to Washington (we'll have to think of something else to stop me doing that) but I'm willing to bet there'd be a lot less people doing it because they "had too".

I'll be dogged! What a load of hot air

There was something pleasing about the fact that the "Boy in the Balloon" story should coincide in this country with the release of Up – Pixar's Boy In a Balloon animated comedy. No question there's a primal narrative tug in the thought of lifting into the air and being blown away on the wind – even if in the former case the boy never got airborne.

But reflecting on the insane extent of the coverage of the story in the American media (I think the clinical term is justified) I found myself thinking of another parallel between fiction and half-fact. Ask yourself which character would stand for the press in John Lasseter's comedy and there's surely only one answer. It would be Doug, the amiable talking-dog, whose every conversation is liable to be interrupted by a bark of "Squirrel!" accompanied by the complete disruption of his train of thought.

America's broadcasters and talk-show hosts had countless subjects of national importance to talk about the other day – from health-care reform to Obama's difficulties in Afghanistan. But then a shiny balloon drifted across the periphery of their vision (SQUIRREL!!) and they forgot everything else. At one point NBC's Today show was carrying the solemn title-board "National incident – the six- year-old who wasn't in the balloon" (I'm not making this up. It wasn't from The Onion website). Anyone who hopes to focus the attention of this dim-witted mutt on matters of genuine national concern will just have to pray that no squirrels break cover on the day they do it.

Austerity means middle-of-the-road films

"That's good," I thought, when I saw a headline suggesting that Hollywood film output was likely to fall by a third. Instead of around 600 movies being produced per year, an industry analyst suggested, only 400 new titles would be turning up at the local multiplexes. And my instinct was that this would be better for everyone.

Almost all the films that Hollywood makes are pretty mediocre, after all – which is partly a judgement of Hollywood and partly just a truism about all forms of artistic creation. Most things are mediocre, which is why we prize the exceptions so highly – and a smaller pool of mediocrity won't hurt anyone.

What's more, since the increased vigour of home-grown film production around the world was one component of this gloomy prognosis, the drop in Hollywood output appeared to be linked to a greater variety of film styles. Then I thought twice. Because the sad truth is that the best of Hollywood emerges from its periods of profligacy and pomp, not from the times when everyone is terrified of losing money. It isn't that there's any simple equation between the budget of a film and its quality – just that there is a direct equation between the fiscal nervousness of a film executive and his or her willingness to take on an outside bet.

And outside bets are where the most interesting things happen. If they cut green-lights by a third you can be pretty sure that the films that might surprise and unsettle you are not the ones that will be making it to the cinema.