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Low cost democratising air travel?- 55% didn’t fly last year. 15.08.07

Low cost airline’s claims that they are making international travel available to all was burst by Defra 2007 environment survey, 55% of English people never took a leisure flight, while a mere 4% took a third of all return flights.

The Defra 2007 survey of public attitudes and behaviours toward the environment, shows very clearly that while the average number of leisure flights taken by the people was 1.1, in actual fact it is a small % of the population who are in effect hogging the airways. Not surprisingly perhaps those with an annual household income of £40,000 or more made up 40 per cent of the people who took 3 or more return flights, but only 11 per cent of the people who did not fly at all.

Even the low cost airlines lobbying organisation, the European Low Fares Airline Association has trouble finding statistical proof that it is actually providing services to a new range of travelers, commenting on the Civil Aviation Authorities report on the aviation industry in 2006, they claimed that while they were enabling lower income people to visit the UK the same could not be said about out going travel.

The second home in France, the apartment on the Spanish coast, the Tuscan villa would appear to be at the heart of what Mark Ellingham, creator of the Rough Guides has recently called “binge flying”. The present crazy for overseas property added by cheap flights seems to be changing the leisure habits of a section of the English middle classes, it is now possible to fly to the French Alps for a ski-ing weekend, or visit the holiday home not just twice a year but 6,7,8 times.

Once again there is a disconnect between the fact that people think the true cost of flights should be reflected in the ticket price and their attitudes to short haul flights. In the UK rural communities talk about horsiculture forcing up prices of agricultural land and buildings as wealthy urban professionals buy up farms as second homes. Here in France we talk about “lits froid” as the 400,000 second homes owned by the British force up price to levels beyond the means of rural workers.

Increasingly the low cost sector is fighting back saying their fleets are more efficient than scheduled airlines, -well they would be as most of their fleets are much newer and newer models are more efficient, however this so called unique environmental argument only works until the scheduled airlines rotate their aging planes out of service. The reality is that plane travel is the fastest growing carbon emissions sector, and as the survey shows it is a sector that primarily caters for people who would be well able to bear the true costs of their travel.

At the moment according to the World Development Movement, British airlines enjoy a subsidy of £10 billion by not paying fuel tax, nor VAT. Mark Ellington’s solution is a £100 "green tax" on tickets for all flights to Europe and Africa, £250 to more remote destinations. An idea that takes the recent Conservative and Liberal Democrat proposals of a small rise a mere splash in the ocean and shows them up to be the tokenistic greenwash they are.

Only be removing the tax subsidy and imposing on transport the true environmental cost of the journey will a level playing field be created between all forms of long distance travel. Once the consumer has a true comparison of real costs between train, plane, car and coach the holiday home in the South of France may not appear such a cunning plan after all.

Peter Shield

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DEFRA 2007 survey of public attitudes and behaviours toward the environment

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