Leading article: The absurd economics of a protected industry


There can be no disguising the fact that the open skies aviation issue poses some rather uncomfortable questions for a newspaper like
The Independent, which is serious about protecting the environment and yet also supports the free market. Few would defend the existing restrictions on transatlantic air traffic. There is no reason why a handful of British and American airlines should be the only carriers that can operate freely on this route. The European Union was right to get rid of this piece of shameless protectionism. Doing so will boost competition and should result in a superior service for passengers.

The only economically regrettable aspect about yesterday's agreement by European transport ministers - aside from the fact that it remains somewhat biased towards the US airlines - is that it will not come into effect until next March. A handful of airlines have had an unfair advantage for three decades. Why should they be given an extra year in which to cash in?

Yet this reform will also, by bringing down airfares, eventually increase the volume of transatlantic air traffic. This is what happened when a similar open skies agreement was agreed in Europe 10 years ago. That resulted in the runaway success of the low-cost budget carriers Ryanair and easyJet. This is all bad news from the perspective of the struggle against climate change. Air travel is the fastest-growing source of the UK's greenhouse emissions. If it begins to grow internationally at the same rate, all the world's efforts to reduce emissions in other areas will be cancelled out.

A similar conflict of principle is presented by BA's flights from London to Newquay which began this week. BA has a perfect legal right to enter this market. Other carriers are already shuttling between the two points. But these new flights are clearly detrimental to the environment, as is the rapid expansion of regional UK airports. Though domestic flights are short, they are extremely harmful because they release carbon dioxide at a high altitude. They are also a hugely inefficient method of transport because they use so much energy taking off and landing.

But before we conclude that the two principles held by this newspaper are incompatible, it is worth looking more closely at the issue of aviation. While the monopoly on transatlantic flights is manifestly wrong, that is not to say that the feebleness of the international community in curbing the number of flights being taken is right. In other words, handing a handful of airlines a lucrative monopoly is a very unsatisfactory way of keeping down air traffic volumes.

There is a far more effective and honest way. Measures such as a hefty tax on flights, tax on aviation fuel and restrictions on airport expansion are required. The tax breaks for airlines have been a colossal hidden subsidy over the past five decades. The result is that it makes financial sense for some airlines to fly empty flights from point to point, solely to retain their lucrative airport landing slots. This is the Alice in Wonderland economics that has been created by the world's mollycoddling of the airline industry.

And domestic flights are a very different issue. There is no realistic alternative to at least some transatlantic air travel. But there is a very clear green alternative to most domestic air travel: the railways. Put simply, governments should clamp down on domestic air travel and curtail regional airport expansion because passengers can take the train instead.

Ideally, greater international aviation competition and a new tax regime would have been introduced in tandem. We now have the first. For the sake of the planet, it is incumbent on our leaders to establish the second soon.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas