In your face: Planes are getting more efficient but passenger taxes drive airlines out of business

Range increases of new jetliners

The UK government has apparently just saved the regional carrier Flybe from bankruptcy by delaying over a hundred million pounds of passenger departure tax payments to the UK government and suggesting to lower this tax altogether in the future. Saving a local airline causes these days an outcry not because of government interventionism but the general anti-flying segment also known as flight shaming. Unfortunately the UK government did not move away from their plan to increase the APD for long haul flights by April 1st. 

Let’s look at what’s currently happening in the industry when it comes to long haul flights: Following aviation news regularly one can observe a real arms race in the last couple of years on which airline currently holds the record on the world’s longest flight. 

Just a few years ago Qatar Airways was the record holder with their Doha-Auckland flight on the newly delivered Airbus A350. 

Now Singapore to New York ranks as the world’s longest flight (and yes, there are different geeky ways to determine what “long” means but no need to dig into this here). 

Now one can just label these new ultra long haul routes as PR stunts of airlines or the manifestation of big egos of airline executives. But the actual marvel behind this is that flights are getting more and more efficient. This allows airlines to schedule longer flights and spare passengers hours of layovers at random airports on the way home. 

And while thousands of private jets will descend into Switzerland for some collective flight shaming at the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is important to point out that flying is getting more efficient. Consumers have more and more choices and additional direct flights allow them to travel faster.  

Those demanding less flying and higher taxation on flights are neglecting the fact of ongoing efficiency gains in the aviation industry and at the same time de-democratize flying by making it less affordable for the average consumer. 

Conventional jetliners becoming more fuel efficient is an ongoing development and does not need any policy input as it is in the intrinsic interest of airlines to offer more competitive routes and ticket prices. 

The next step would be to allow a regulatory framework for supersonic passenger flights. We wrote a paper on this last year. 

It’s time to let Europe go supersonic

When France built its high-speed rail network, it revolutionised the way we looked at train traevl. What takes 4-5 hours by long-distance bus from Brussels to Paris can now be completed in just over an hour with a Thalys train. Dumping slow regional trains for fast and futuristic new models has brought more comfort and time-efficiency to consumers.

In aviation however, the opposite is the case. Since the 1960s, air travel hasn’t gotten any faster. According to Kate Repantis from MIT cruising speeds for commercial airliners today range between about 480 and 510 knots, compared to 525 knots for the Boeing 707, a mainstay of 1960s jet travel.

The reason for that is fuel-efficiency, which translates into cost-efficiency. While pilots have attempted to find the most efficient flight routes, it is slowing flights down which has effectively reduced fuel consumption. According to a story from NBC News in 2008, JetBlue saved about $13.6 million a year in jet fuel by adding just under two minutes to its flights.

But slowing things down doesn’t need to be the only alternative, and it will certainly shock passengers to learn that flight times are actually longer than 60 years ago. We can look at it this way: old regional trains are less electricity-consuming than current high-speed trains going at over 300 km/h, but there is precious little demand to bring travel times between Paris and London back to seven hours. In fact, as we use high-speed rail continuously, the technology improves and energy consumption is reduced. The same dynamic ought to work in aviation.

Supersonic planes have been out of the discussion in Europe for a while, but new innovations should make us reconsider our approach to this technology.

For long-distance intercontinental flights, supersonic planes cut flight time by more than half.  For instance, London-New York would go down from 7 hours to just 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Granted, the fuel-efficiency of current supersonic models isn’t yet ideal, but for a (re)emerging industry the only way from here is up. When considering the evolution of regular planes, which have become 80 per cent more efficient than the first airliners, there are good grounds for optimism about supersonic planes. What’s more, producers of supersonic planes are also supportive of alternative fuel use, a key part of the UN’s 2020 plan for carbon-neutral growth.

Faster flight times for consumers who like innovative solutions to environmental problems. What’s not to like?

The biggest catch is noise levels. As someone who grew up in a town neighbouring an airport, and having lived there almost 20 years, I know the differing views on airport noises. Many in my home village would defend the airport for economic reasons, while others would rally in associations of concerned citizens, fighting the airport one plane at a time. Over the years, their demands have found less support, because as planes became more efficient, they also made less noise.

Here is where supersonic planes aren’t starting from scratch either. While these aircrafts are louder on landing and take-off, new models, like Boom’s futuristic looking Overture,  are 100 times less noisy than the Concorde was. Furthermore, it would be important to compare those things that are comparable, in the same way that wouldn’t equate a regional jet with a large A380 with over 800 passengers. So yes, supersonic planes would be, at least for now, noisier. At the same time, the trade-off would entail faster travel times and the promise of lower emissions down the line.

The least we can do to increase consumer choice in this area is give supersonic a chance. Current regulations are not supportive of the fact that supersonic planes are fundamentally different than regular, subsonic, aircraft. There is a balance that both consumers and concerned citizens can strike, which looks at the questions of A) what we can realistically achieve in terms of reducing noise, and B) the advantageous trade-offs we’d get as a return of allowing Europe to go supersonic.

Democratising travel

The #HandsOffMyCheapFlights campaign is about more than just what its name suggests. Cheap flights are what consumers know and love about air travel in the past years, but it is the overall phenomenon of democratised travel that should have us stand in awe. For people in upper-middle-class and wealthy conditions, the world was just the purchase of a ticket away for much longer. Whether it’s €300 or €30 to Milan, doesn’t really make much of a difference to them. So to the privileged (you’ll excuse the word) eye, travelling has remained the same, with one notable change: there are more people on the airport. Shockingly, it’s low-income consumers who suddenly fly into the same airport as the privileged travellers. It takes more time to get your suitcase, getting through security is a hassle, and for goodness sake, you can’t even get a seat while waiting to board.

No wonder some people are a bit annoyed. But saying that you don’t want people to fly just so that you don’t have to pay for fast-track security control isn’t marketable, so sustainability comes into play. What about all the noise and pollution? Don’t bother considering the fact that innovation in the aviation sector is continuously improving fuel efficiency, since carriers have no incentive to waste kerosene needlessly. Also, don’t mention that improved aircrafts, more efficient flight routes, and reduced speeds have made the sector much more efficient than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

That’s all a bit hyperbolic, and you’ll maybe even consider it bad faith. And maybe it is.

But for some reason, not everyone rejoices at the democratisation of travel. In a time in which the debate about inequality is so predominant, we’re not lending an ear to consumers who want to go on holidays, or visit a friend, just as much as all those with higher income than them. Modern aviation has made it possible, yet activists and governments around the world are there to roll this back.

The Consumer Choice Center fights the EU departure tax from the beginning. We will stand up for consumers who want to have choices when it comes to the means of transportation. We are making people aware that flights are emitting much less carbon than they were in the past, and that this level innovation is set to continue in the future. If however, we choose to limit this development in an effort to answer to alarmism, then we will inevitably fail.

Let’s not let that happen.

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