Monday, 11 September 2006

9/11 And The End Of Air Travel

Five years ago on this day, I lived in Washington, DC. On the morning of September 11th there was still one hijacked plane unaccounted for, and I was racing against the flow of traffic to reach my daughter’s day-care, two blocks from the White House. Later, if I walked down the road, I could see the smoke rising from the Pentagon.

One of the most noticeable things in the days that followed was that the skies were empty, save for the occasional military fighter patrol. We lived in the flight path of Reagan National Airport, so the silence was both welcome and disconcerting. Everything seemed different, and we wondered whether the airport would ever reopen.

In the end, flights to Reagan National resumed, just as they had at airports all around the US. The largest terrorist attack in the nation’s history was not going to keep most people out of airplanes for more than a few weeks.

Fast forward five years and we’re in London. Security alerts mean that it can take more than three hours to check in at Heathrow. A few people stay away, but most simply arrive hours early. For many people, hours of queuing, body searches, no liquids, and the like is the price they are willing to pay to get on a flight. Okay, maybe “willing” is putting things too strongly.

All this should be sobering news for people worried about the environmental impact of flying. It’s going to be an uphill battle to solve the problem by keeping people off of airplanes. A lot of people will continue to fly regardless of how many taxes are imposed or how much environmental guilt is piled on. For many people, airplanes are simply their preferred mode of travel and only an outright ban will stop them from flying. I’m not passing judgement here, just acknowledging a fact.

So what can we do? I think making the alternatives more attractive can help. Among other things, we need more affordable and reliable high-speed rail links to compete with short-haul flights. We can also work together to encourage the airline industry to use cleaner, more efficient aircraft. My former boss is hard at work on this now. Finally, we need to make it easier to clean up the remaining pollution.

(Link to Carbon Clear Homepage)