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‘Cheap flights should be a cause of national rejoicing’

In the first of a series of interviews with speakers at the forthcoming Battle of Ideas, David Soskin of CheapFlights.co.uk defends no-frills holidaymaking against its 'ignorant' critics.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

spiked is the online partner of the Battle of Ideas, the two-day festival of debate that will take place in London on 28 and 29 October 2006. In the run-up to the Battle, we will publish a series of taster interviews with some of the speakers and participants. We kick off with an interview by Brendan O’Neill with David Soskin, CEO of CheapFlights.co.uk, who will be speaking in the session Save the planet, don’t see the world? at lunchtime on 29 October.

‘Help yourself to chocolate biscuits.’ Welcoming me into his plush boardroom on the seventh floor of a business building in Baker Street – with a spectacular view of a sunny London skyline out of the window – David Soskin doesn’t come across as an evil man. He doesn’t look like the kind of person who works in a field so wicked that it makes ‘genocide and ethnic cleansing look like sideshows at the circus of human suffering’ (1). And yet he is CEO of CheapFlights.co.uk, the UK’s leading travel price comparison website, which facilitates more than its fair share of cheap and cheerful holidays abroad. And according to some of the more shrill critics of the aviation industry – who seriously claim that the pollution caused by flying is giving rise to a ‘genocide’ – that puts him well and truly on the side of the devils. What does he have to say for himself? He takes a sip of tea.

‘These people, these critics of flying and cheap flying, are so ignorant’, he says, sounding surprisingly posh – and surprisingly unapologetic – for someone who runs a company called CheapFlights. And he has no doubts as to who ‘these people’ are. ‘Those who slam no-frills airlines are usually newspaper columnists or green spokespeople. They are reasonably affluent, well-educated and tend to live in places like Islington. They are the kind of people used to taking their holidays in the Dordogne and Tuscany and they don’t like the fact that that sort of holiday is now affordable for millions of people whom they find it difficult to relate to. One of the proponents of “eco-taxes” on flights is Zac Goldsmith, a scion of one of the richest families in Britain. They are so out of touch with the way ordinary people live. They are snobs.’

It’s certainly true that sections of the media set and environmentalist activists have declared war on flying in recent years – especially ‘no-frills flying’, the kind offered by easyJet, Ryanair and the rest, which allows all sorts of people to jet off to sunny and distant destinations for as little as £25. It was Guardian columnist George Monbiot who claimed that aeroplanes, because they emit a lot of CO2s, are creating a ‘killing field’ that will make earlier genocides look like a mere ‘sideshow’. He concluded that flying across the Atlantic is now ‘as unacceptable as child abuse’ (2). A front cover of the left-leaning weekly the New Statesman recently featured a photo of a jet taking off, a stream of grey smoke flowing from its engines, next to the headline: ‘The growth in flying will propel us into a future of melting ice caps, spreading deserts, rising sea levels and collapsing ecosystems.’ (3) Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, argues that flying is a ‘symptom of sin’ (whatever that might mean) (4).

And don’t get them started on cheap flying. ‘There is this feeling amongst environmentalists that it is the package-holidaymakers who rush off in no-frills aeroplanes to Spain and Greece who cause global pollution’, says Soskin. ‘Those travellers are clearly in their sights more than those who engage in supposedly “responsible tourism”. There is this idea that people who fly cheaply are themselves pollutants.’ In an environmentalist action plan published in the Observer last year, titled ‘10 things we must do to make a difference’ (note the word ‘must’), point no.2 said: ‘Put an end to cheap flights.’ It called for government action to ‘curb passenger enthusiasm’ for all this no-frills flying (5). One commentator argues that Brits must ‘give up cheap flights’, those ‘easyJet quickies’, before we end up ‘scattered like the environmental refugees of New Orleans’ (6). No wonder bishops are sticking their noses into the discussion: this all sounds a lot like the old sermonic claim that living to excess and enjoying yourself is bad for you. Only flying won’t just make you go blind – apparently it will cause droughts and disasters, kill the planet, and finish off future generations.

So is it true that people who fly, and especially people who fly lo-price, are effectively wringing the planet’s, and by association their own and everyone else’s necks? ‘The facts don’t bear that out’, says Soskin. ‘Aviation contributes about three per cent to global man-made carbon emissions – three per cent! That means 97 per cent is caused by other things. And yet flying is often discussed as the “main contributor” of emissions. Just the other day I heard the young George Osborne [Tory shadow chancellor] saying on the Today programme, “As everyone knows, aviation is a major contributor to pollution.” No it isn’t. Often people don’t get their basic facts straight.’

Soskin’s figures come from a pretty exhaustive study by The Economist in June this year, which found that aviation’s contribution ‘to total man-made emissions worldwide is around 3%’. In its study of greenhouse gas emissions in America – said to be the most polluting (ie, most developed) country in the world – The Economist found that all forms of transportation contributed 27.4 per cent of emissions; flying on its own causes 3.2 per cent. So even within the world of transportation, flight is overshadowed by cars, ships and trains when it comes to coughing up the bad stuff. And where flight causes 3.2 per cent of America’s greenhouse-gas emissions, electricity generation causes 33.9 per cent, industry causes 18.8 per cent, agriculture causes 7.6 per cent, residential properties cause 7.6 per cent and commercial properties cause 4.7 per cent (7). So actually flying seems to come pretty low down on the Wicked List.

Ah, but aviation is the fastest-growing transport sector, the critics of flying will respond, and thus it promises to become the greatest polluter unless we keep it in check now. Soskin takes something of an old-fashioned capitalist line on this issue. To those greens, journalists, Tory ministers and even government ministers pressuring the New Labour government and the EU to support slapping fatter taxes on flying, Soskin says: ‘Since when has it been good government policy to discourage growth in one of our successful industries?’ He also points out that there is great demand for flying. ‘More and more people want to fly. They love it. CheapFlights.co.uk has about three million unique users a month to our UK website. That is three million people looking for cheap flights. They are going to be pretty nonplussed if those flights suddenly have an eco-tax.’

If flying is not the No.1 polluter many people presume it is, then cheap flying is even less so. The irony of all the media and greenish handwringing over no-frills flights that allow the young, the less well-off and just about anyone who earns a half-decent wage to visit far-flung corners of the globe is that cheap flights tend to be more green than old-fashioned, more expensive flights. ‘The no-frills airlines are a fine example of rather efficient use of aircraft, because they fill their aircraft up and always tend to travel full; they don’t have aircraft hanging around chugging out pollutants; they use secondary airports quite a lot of the time, so their planes don’t endlessly circle the skies waiting for an opportunity to land, like a BA flight over somewhere as busy as Heathrow’, says Soskin. ‘And they invest in new stock. One of the reasons why easyJet and Ryanair have been so successful is because they tend to operate new aircraft, which are fast and fuel-efficient. So the environmentalist lobby and its supporters have, yet again, got it completely wrong. The no-frills airlines are probably more environmentally-friendly than the airlines they take to Mongolia.’

Another irony of today’s focus on flying as a terrible polluter is that aircraft pollute less today than they did in the past. As The Economist put it, ‘Even though today’s aircraft are about 70 per cent more efficient than those of 40 years ago, concerns over emissions have grown.’ (8) And aircraft are becoming more environmentally-friendly all the time. They are being made with lighter materials which means they need less fuel to keep them airborne; and something like the new Airbus A380 – the double-decker jet that will be able to carry 555 passengers – will lessen aviation’s carbon impact on the environment by flying more people at once, which could lead to fewer take-offs from airports (a lot of emissions are expended during take-off) and less plane congestion on airport tarmacs. It’s like cars, says Soskin. ‘When I was growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, cars really were gas-guzzlers. They were the most filthy, disgusting polluting things imaginable. But a lot of money went into investment to make them less polluting. It is not beyond the wit of man to do the same with planes.’

So if flying isn’t so bad, and millions of people actually think it is quite bloody good, why does it remain the spectre of today’s green debates? Soskin thinks it might be because it’s an easier target than industry or big business. ‘But just because it is an easy target doesn’t mean it should be the main target.’ He says ‘there is definitely a snobbish element’, too, where people who jet off on cheap holidays once or twice a year are seen as being ‘selfish and uncaring’. I expect it’s also because flying fits perfectly with the environmentalist focus on guilt-tripping individuals about their personal behaviour. By describing aviation – somewhat inaccurately – as the causer of ‘melting ice caps and collapsing ecosystems’, green-minded activists and writers can hold individual holidaymakers responsible for pollution and effectively emotionally blackmail them into holidaying less or holidaying more ‘responsibly’. The focus on flying exposes the deep moralistic strain that runs through today’s politics of environmentalism.

Soskin says the campaign against cheap flying will impact most on the less well-off – not just holidaymakers, but also those who work in or benefit from the tourism industry. ‘Tourism is absolutely key to the economy and wellbeing of some of the poorest countries of the world. Environmentalists don’t seem to understand that if you cut off the mass tourism to these countries – in other words, the jumbo jet-loads of people who now holiday in places like Bali, Sri Lanka and Thailand, which have all become mass tourist destinations – then you are very, very significantly damaging those local economies. And that is unforgivable. For these people to sit in their comfortable terraced houses in Islington and opine about where people should go and should not go, in blissful ignorance of how these countries actually depend on tourist money, is reprehensible.’

Strong words, and a good point. It wouldn’t be the first time that green-minded politicians and campaigners called for some aspect of everyday life or business to be reined in without thinking through the impact on workers and others. Yet I can’t help feeling that it is somewhat disingenuous of Soskin to present cheap flying as something akin to the saviour of the world’s poor. That is similar to the argument used by the green lobby. They claim to be protesting against aviation in order to save the Third World poor from future hurricanes and floods, overlooking the fact that it is poverty that means the Third World remains at the mercy of such natural phenomena; while Soskin seems to believe that one reason we should keep holidaying abroad is to keep poor economies afloat, which also leaves more profound questions about the causes of poverty unaddressed and presents flying as a moral good, rather than simply a mode of transport.

No matter. It is a relief in our uncritical times to hear someone stand up for cheap flights and the millions of people who use them. ‘I think it should be a cause of national celebration that people of all income brackets can now go away on a regular basis, taste foreign food, meet people of different nationalities, embrace people of different cultures, in a way they couldn’t 10 or 20 years ago. That should be a cause of unadulterated national rejoicing. Cheap flights are very good things and they should be encouraged.’ Now, that’s not a line you hear every day.

David Soskin, CEO of CheapFlights.co.uk, will be speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival of debate in London on 29 October 2006. Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Global warming means that flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse, George Monbiot, Guardian, 29 July 1999

(2) Global warming means that flying across the Atlantic is now as unacceptable as child abuse, George Monbiot, Guardian, 29 July 1999

(3) Fly and be damned, New Statesman, 3 April 2006

(4) It’s a sin to fly, says church, The Sunday Times, 23 July 2006

(5) Ten things we must do to make a difference, Observer action plan, 2005

(6) High cost of cheap flights, London Evening Standard, 6 January 2006

(7) The sky’s the limit, The Economist, 8 June 2006

(8) The sky’s the limit, The Economist, 8 June 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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