Five reasons why The End of Aviation is not nigh

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The New Republic magazine in the US has a thought-provoking article running entitled The End of Aviation. It’s subtitled What will happen when America can’t afford to fly? It’s about America obviously, but most of the arguments are applicable elsewhere. A couple of years ago I would have considered them plausible, but now I’m more optimistic about aviation. Here’s why…

  • Biofuels. Forget the demos you’ve seen so far – everybody in the industry already has done. Airlines, airframers, and engine-manufacturers are all pretty caustic about any work going on (and it’s pretty much been killed off I think) regarding non-sustainable biofuels. But I’m very struck by the scientists’ optimism over second-generation, algae-or-something biofuels. The worst thing anyone can say is that “you’ll need an area the size of Belgium”. Well, maybe, but fortunately Belgium is not very big. This matters – we aren’t going to run out of fuel, or even necessarily see it become prohibitively expensive.

  • Higher fares. I think fares can go a lot higher and still leave a mass-consumption industry in place. Which brings me to my next point…

  • There are alternatives for short-, and even medium-haul travel. And there are not alternatives for long-haul travel. Either way it means fares can go up. In the first case we can switch to trains and forego short-haul leisure air-travel while still using it for business. In the latter we will simply have to bite the bullet – long-haul travel is a luxury and that’s all there is to it. Clearly many people will be disenfranchised from long-haul travel, and certainly from frequent long-haul travel. But that’s not my point here (although I have views about that.)

  • Jets are a luxury. We can switch to props in a big way. Rolls-Royce and others have made subdued noises about this already. When push comes to shove then it really could happen, And not necessarily just on traditional regional prop routes, or on traditionally sized small aircraft. There are major savings to be had here. (But it’s difficult – because you need to commit to building new aircraft as alternatives to jets – which is a pretty serious paradigm shift.)

  • Bigger aircraft and lower frequencies. This is really important, because it could happen very quickly. In fact in a small way it’s happening already. But it will almost certainly require re-regulation to accelerate the trend – which in aviation is not out of the question. Consider for example London-Dublin with two or more narrowbody (or even RJ) flights per hour from dawn-to-dusk, all year round. It’s an indefensible, though explicable, situation and when the screw tightens in the years ahead it will have to come to an end. There are of course comparable examples worldwide, and far more less extreme examples. Rationalising this will make a gigantic difference.

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