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Air Traffic Chaos Exposes Crisis In The Skies

  • The soaring demand for air travel, particularly in the busiest airports like Heathrow and Gatwick, makes the system highly vulnerable to even minor glitches, leading to massive delays.
  • The current growth in air travel is at odds with the sustainability goals, as it accounts for an increasing share of global emissions.
  • Solutions may include modernizing outdated airspace frameworks, promoting sustainable aviation fuels, and possibly adopting policies like France's short-haul flight ban to reduce emissions and ease congestion.

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up drinking”, says Lloyd Bridges’ wizened air traffic controller Steve McCroskey in the 1980 disaster satire Airplane. You’d imagine National Air Traffic Services (NATS) chief exec Martin Rolfe is probably in need of a stiff drink after this week’s air travel chaos.  

The explanation from NATS, that a single erroneous data entry could lead to the grounding or delaying of thousands of flights elicited howls of disapproval from tourists and industry figures alike. An alternative view is that the system did precisely what it was meant to do and that delays are a small, though incredibly annoying, price to pay for the logistical and engineering miracle that is modern airline safety. We take this for granted, and it’s making us complacent about future innovation in air transport.

While the focus for now is on the sometimes heart-rending – and sometimes ludicrous – human drama of missed flights and delayed homecomings, the story points to deeper intersecting trends that could cause even greater turbulence for the airline industry in years to come. 

The first is the sheer scale of demand for air travel. Heathrow and Gatwick are respectively the busiest dual and single runway airports in the world. Even with budget airlines in huge competition, demand continues to grow. Remember getting on that super cheap, near empty Ryanair flight any weekend recently? Me neither. While long haul and business travel recovery continues to lag, they too are ticking back up. So long as there remains little slack in the system, as we saw this week even the smallest of glitches can lead to outsized repercussions. In today’s gridlocked skies, when a butterfly flaps its wings in one location, it causes delays and disruptions in another. 

This challenge of capacity runs directly into a second – that of sustainability. While aviation represents a relatively small amount of global emissions – 2-3 per cent – that figure is predicted to increase when we need emissions across the board to be reduced. As I’ve argued on these pages before, we’ve already plucked most of the low hanging carbon reducing fruit. An unsustainable increase in air travel is another area of life where we need a more pragmatic, grown up conversation about what is responsible and feasible in the coming years. 

What’s to be done? Well, the French are banning short haul flights. This would free up some capacity in the skies and reduce emissions. This idea has support among the European public and other continental governments are looking at it. You would imagine it’s less likely to take off in the UK – the pushback against ULEZ and low travel neighborhoods highlights the political likelihood of that right now. And, unless you’re Dominic Raab, you’ll probably be aware that for an island nation this could lead to some big bottlenecks for flows of goods and people in the short term. 

Modernisation of our airspace is one step that needs to be accelerated. The current framework was created in 1950 when, safe to say, there were probably fewer planes about. This would both free up capacity and deliver more fuel efficient routes. 

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is another. At a Bloomberg Sustainable Business summit recently, Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss was excoriating in his view of the UK government’s failure to launch a domestic SAF industry, losing out to investment in other markets leading to likely higher prices for UK carriers. Ceding ground to other nations when the breakthrough could happen here seems an own goal.

Taking the long view, we live in a period of relatively low innovation in air travel. Aside from making it cheaper, in many other ways we’ve gone backwards. Where’s our Concorde or Jumbo Jet? One hundred years ago people were flying about in blimps with much lower environmental impact. To paraphrase J Storr Halls, “Where’s my flying car?”. New Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho would do worse in taking on her new portfolio than making a couple of big bets on air travel innovation. 

For the moment, spare a thought for your columnist, who’s filing this on the train to Stansted. I fear I may need a drink.

By CityAM

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