Is the era of mass air travel over? Credit: Joan Valls/Urbanandsport /NurPhoto/ Getty

May 18, 2020   7 mins

After the lockdown, the bailouts. Crisis-hit industries already have their begging bowls out — and governments are frantically working out how much to give them and what to ask for in return.

In most cases ministers have no choice but to do what it takes. If they let, say, Transport for London go down the tubes, there’ll be no return to normality.

But there’s one industry where the question isn’t “how do we save it?”, but “can we save it?” and even “should we save it?”

That industry is the great enabler of the global economy: aviation.

Can we imagine a world without mass air travel? Well, you don’t have to — just look out the window. Or at one of those flight tracker websites. Even around cities like London the skies are almost clear, the airports all but deserted, airlines operating at a tiny fraction of their capacity.

But that’s temporary, right? Aviation might be one of the last industries to recover, but it’s not like the aeroplanes have all crashed. The supporting infrastructure is intact. The industry has everything it needs to get off the ground again — everything but enough money, and that’s something the state can provide.

After all, there’s more than the economy at stake here. Safe and affordable air travel is one of the great signifiers of modernity. More than any other, this is the technological advance that delineates our era from the plodding, earthbound, black-and-white world that preceded it. To turn our backs on all of that, to regress to a less advanced stage in our development, well, that’s a textbook definition of civilisational decline.

When Radio 4’s In Our Time tackled the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century, Melvyn Bragg asked his guests whether the concept of ‘decline’ was still considered valid by contemporary scholars. After some academic umming-and-ahhing, it was Professor Charlotte Roueché who got to the point: hot-and-cold running water. The Romans had it throughout their empire, and then it was lost. For centuries. That’s your decline, right there.

Can we imagine something similar happening in our own day and age — the permanent loss of a ubiquitous technology? Needless to say, we discard technologies all the time — when they’re superseded by something better (or, at least, more convenient). Take recorded music, where we went from wax cylinders to shellac records to vinyl records to CDs to streaming (plus various other steps and detours in between). But occasionally we abandon a technology for which there’s no replacement. Something we used to be able to do just stops.

Older readers may remember the shoe-fitting fluoroscope (or, to use a rather unfortunate proprietary name, the Pedoscope). It’s purpose was to take the guess work out of shoe shopping. This is always a pain — and sometimes a permanent one if the shoes that felt fine in the shop turn out to be too tight or too loose.

But what if you could literally see through the shoe leather to see how good the fit is?  What if there were some sort of X-ray device that displayed an image of the shoe around the bones of your foot? Indeed, what if you could wiggle your phalanges and view them moving around inside their new confines? Sales assistants could be trained to make an objective assessment — allowing you to purchase with confidence.

It sounds futuristic, but this technology belongs to the past. Fluoroscopes were once a common sight in our shoe shops. Thousands of the devices were installed in the mid-20th century. Until, that is, people realised that the high street isn’t the best place for a boxful of radioactive isotopes (an X-ray machine needs an X-ray source). It was decided that pinched toes were preferable to radiation burns, and so that was the end of that.

There’s another, much grander, example from the mid-20th century: manned spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. It’s now 47 years since we last visited another world. And I don’t see plans for a return to the moon being a spending priority in the post-Covid era.

So, yes, even in the modern age, we sometimes take a technological step backwards because we can’t sustain the cost of progress.

Could the same apply to mass air travel? Aviation has had to take a step back before. Between the wars, there was a serious attempt to deliver commercial trans-Atlantic flights by airship. Tragically, it all came to grief with the Hindenburg disaster in 1937.

Yet that was only a temporary reverse. After the Second World War, aeroplane technology would grow into the industry we know today. The world’s airlines now carry over four billion passengers every year (‘now’ meaning the last few years until 2020 happened).

That’s about eight trillion passenger-kilometers. Numbers have basically doubled over the last two decades, and are predicted to more than double again over the next twenty years. Certainly there’s plenty of potential for growth because only a fifth of the world’s population has ever flown. They seem keen to try, however. In Asia alone, it’s estimated that 100 million people fly for the first time time every year.

If you look at the modern technologies that have been set aside without replacement they are either trivial (like the Pedoscope) or experimental (like manned spaceflight). Mass air travel is clearly unlike either of those, which is why its loss seems so unimaginable.

And yet whether a technology is abandoned or not isn’t determined by the extent of its benefit, but by whether the benefits are outweighed by the costs.

Airlines have innovated to increase the affordability, if not the pleasantness, of air travel. They’ve pushed the limits of euclidean geometry (and human anatomy) to fit ever more seats into the same space. We may complain, but the industry knows we’re suckers for a cheap ride.

Covid-19 throws all of that into doubt. 

There’s no social distancing on a packed plane — not even if middle seats are left empty. With a typical seat pitch (the distance between the same point on each row) of about 75cm, keeping a two metre separation is impossible — and that’s without the sociopath in front of you reclining into your face.

The industry claims that there are other ways of keeping passengers safe. For instance, the filtration systems which continually clean the cabin air. Then again, just look at this simulation of how airborne droplets from a single sneeze spread around a plane. Grim.

No matter what adjustments are made on board, the fact is that to fly means spending several hours in a tin can with hundreds of strangers — and you don’t where they’ve been.

To persuade us of the safety of that, airlines will mainly be relying on what happens on the ground. From temperature scans to spit tests, screening procedures are a first line of defence in airports around the world. The already tiresome business of getting through an airport will get several times worse. For instance, read Laurel Chor’s account of what it takes to fly from London to Hong Kong. We’re talking about hours of extra delay — and not in a comfy airport lounge, but in some spartan, socially-distanced warehouse. And, of course, there’s always the risk that you’ll fail a check and be refused entry.

With that rigmarole in place, most trips — whether for business or pleasure — become untenable.

These controls are likely to last a lot longer than other aspects of the lockdown. In respect to international air travel, any relaxation depends on progress being made not just in the country in question, but globally.

It seems likely that hopes of widespread asymptomatic infection — and thus of achieving herd immunity — have been dashed. Most countries’ strategy for getting out of lockdown will be about suppressing transmission of the disease at home. As they get closer to that goal, efforts to prevent re-infection from abroad are likely to tighten not loosen.

The British government is now introducing a quarantine period for air passengers arriving in the UK. This would require them to self-isolate at a private residence for 14 days. Obviously, that rules out most business and holiday travel. The airlines aren’t happy — and they won’t have been consoled by some recent remarks by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock: “It’s unlikely that big, lavish international holidays are going to be possible this summer.”

Indeed, governments are unlikely to let down their guard or consumers to regain their confidence until we’ve gone through the coming winter without a serious second wave of the disease. So, the big question for the airlines is what happens next summer.

Even if lockdown is lifted and borders re-open, how many of us will have the confidence — or the money — to fly abroad on holiday again? As for business travel, will we see an explosion of pent-up demand (from, say, personnel deployed to rebuild global supply chains) or an accelerated process of deglobalisation? We don’t know yet, because none of this has happened before.

We can be certain that demand will recover, but there’s no telling how rapidly or to what extent. With airlines already fragilised by debt and months of massively reduced revenues, there is a significant chance of an industry-wide meltdown.

In which case, what should governments do about it? Presumably, they won’t allow national flag carriers to collapse, but would it be sensible to bail-out or nationalise every airline? Not in the context of dramatically reduced demand. If there is a need for a general bail-out, then it can’t happen without a restructuring of the whole industry. And by ‘restructuring’, I mean downsizing.

Whatever happens, we need to ask what purpose aviation actually serves. This is a moment in history when we’re rethinking the case for globalisation, wrestling with the challenge of climate change, and reeling from the impact of pandemic disease. The question of whether mass air travel does more harm than good is now open and urgent.

A world where we radically restrict air travel is no longer unthinkable. The downside of hyper-connectivity, of millions of people hurtling around the planet at every moment, is no longer theoretical. Aviation did not create Covid-19, but it did turn a local outbreak into a global catastrophe. Unrestricted aviation is the great multiplier of pandemic risk — and that can’t be ignored anymore.

Aviation policy cannot go on as if none of this has happened. There’s Heathrow expansion, for instance, the business case for which now lies in tatters. Though a major asset, Heathrow is also a liability, a vast generator of congestion and pollution lodged in the side of our most populous city. The idea that we’d make it bigger is not just absurd, but grotesque.

Boris was right for the wrong reason, we need to move our main airport to a coastal location — but to provide room for containment, not expansion. Protection against future pandemics depends on the ability to close our borders as and when required. Ports, airports and logistical hubs need to be designed around this objective — incorporating the facilities required for advanced border control, mass medical testing and, if necessary, the quarantine of returning travellers.

As devastating as this pandemic has been, we need to remember it could have been worse — and that there’s absolutely no guarantee that the next one won’t be. But I wonder whether we’ve really learned our lesson.

We’ve been taught to despise humility, to disregard our limits. Like Jesus tempted by Satan in the wilderness, we’ve been taken to a high place and shown “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour”. We’ve come to believe that they belong to us, that they must lie within our grasp.

But we live a different world now and for most of us that means a smaller world. Because that’s what happens when we overreach.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.