Flatten the flight curve

Let’s start with a disclaimer: I’m fascinated by aircraft. I love their amazing technology.

That doesn’t mean I can’t hold a view on where aviation is heading.

Back-track some years – in fact, 100 years. Two intrepid South Africans take off from England in a Vickers Vimy aircraft with the lovely name Silver Queen. They’re headed for South Africa.

Pierre van Ryneveld and Quintin Brand made it, but not in their Silver Queen, which crashed in Sudan. Actually a replacement Silver Queen II didn’t make it either. It was damaged on takeoff from Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe. The pair eventually landed safely at Pretoria in 1920, in a third aircraft. Both were knighted.

SA Airways Junkers Ju-52/3M at Rand Airport

A decade later, in the 1930s, airlines started up, including Union Airways in South Africa from which emerged SAA. Imperial Airways served the London to Cape Town route.

Its fleet included the massive Handley Page HP42 that carried up to 20 passengers and mail. Seating was similar to that of a luxury Pullman train carriage. Large windows coupled with a slow cruise speed offered passengers an ever-changing view of the landscape below.

An Imperial Airways Handley Page H.P.42 airliner in 1935 somewhere in Palestine

Imagine them overnighting in exotic places like Brindisi, Alexandria, Wadi Halfa and Broken Hill on the 10-day journey. They would spend each night at a plush hotel, dressed up for dinner that likely consisted of five courses and ended with cognac and cigars.

Clearly aviation was for the elite – like the monied class doing a Grand Tour of Europe.

Democratisation of the air really took off after World War II. Aircraft that served the purposes of war proved reliable and with ‘legs’, i.e. long range. Plus they had capacity for big loads, able to carry lots of passengers and cargo.

It was the Boeing Company in the United States that speeded up air travel with its Boeing 707 jetliner. Then it further upped the ante in 1969 with the huge Boeing 747 Jumbo.

A South African Airways (SAA) Boeing 747 Jumbo landing at Johannesburg before taken out of service some years ago

More than any other aircraft, the Jumbo packed them in: air travel was now for all and everyone. It was cheap; millions flew to all corners of the earth. And they were soon clogging up cultural and tourist sites everywhere…

Airline companies made a packet. So Airbus in Europe launched its massive double-decker A380 at the 2005 Paris air show with unadulterated Gallic pride. Even the French president arrived to check it out.

French President Jacques Chirac at the 2005 debut of the Airbus A380 in Paris
The new Airbus A380 airliner on display at the 2005 Paris air show at Le Bourget

The A380 was designed to carry nearly 600 passengers on two decks, eleven abreast in economy. What social distancing!

Fast-forward to 2020.

The Covid-19 virus hitches a ride on an airplane. Just like bubonic plague that floated into Europe aboard a ship in 1347.

Except nobody knew it then. But we spotted the coronavirus soon enough. All governments closed borders and air space. Airlines that bought 12 000 passenger jets over the past decade alone had to park them at rising expense. No flights, no revenue.

The hugely popular 747 Jumbo stopped flying this month. The last one is probably now headed for the boneyard in the desert. (Some cargo versions will continue flying for some years more).

Airbus stopped building its giant A380. After only 15 years.

An Airbus A380 prototype at the Dubai air show in 2005

These cancellations had nothing to do with Covid-19. Commercial, operational and many other business-related considerations were at play long before the virus emerged, possibly even environmental. Concorde, flying at twice the speed of sound and arguably one of the loveliest passenger jets ever, succumbed to these issues.

Aircraft always had – and will continue to have – a huge impact on the world. They’re the fastest and safest means of transport. But they are noisy, nothwithstanding their modern quieter engines.

And aviation does pollute: fuel burn emissions, airport services running tens of thousands of ground vehicles, single-use plastic for in-flight catering, massive food waste. The list goes on.

Yet aviation is inextricably woven into the global economy. Millions upon millions earn their living from it. Can we deny those millions the right to a livelihood? Can we deprive all manner of businesses the income they have come to rely on since mass travel started?

Thousands of tourists in St Peter’s Square in Rome

Aircraft connect the furthest-flung communities with the rest of the world. Small and large economies, from a rural village and tropical islanders to the most developed nations nowadays depend on tourists, many arriving by plane.

We cannot turn back the clock. But Covid-19 grounded the world (to use aviator lingo), buying us time to reflect.

Here’s a question: can we continue on this trajectory? Get this: over 10 million passengers fly on commercial aircraft every day, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

We now get by with virtual travel and e-meetings. Sure, it’s not the same as attending a real-life conference, or a concert in the Royal Albert Hall, or a World Cup final. Or admiring the Mona Lisa in the Louvre – once you’ve elbowed your way to the front.

Aerospace firms have relied on their own self-fulfilling demand spiral to build thousands more aircraft every year.

I say: let’s flatten that curve. For the sake of our children, for the sake of our planet where they’ll be living after we’re gone, let’s stop this madness. There’s no need to fly to the other side of the world every year.

Just to say: “I’ve been there!”

The author wishes to thank fellow Safrean Alexis Grewan for editorial input. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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