Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

The skies are busier than ever: this means both cheaper fares and carbon challenges

As the number of planes taking to the sky hit a record high, travellers can look forward to lower fares but the planet could have a darker fate

230,000 planes took to the sky in a single day last week accrodign to Flightradar24  
230,000 planes took to the sky in a single day last week accrodign to Flightradar24  

Earlier this week, the world got a striking visual reminder of just how busy things are up above our heads.

Real-time air traffic tracking service Flightradar24 shared a map depicting a snapshot of the 230,000 flights that had taken to the skies on Thursday July 25. Representing the busiest day for commercial aviation to date, the throbbing animated image depicted a swarm of tiny yellow airplanes busily moving across countries and continents.

As commercial aviation gears up for its 106th year, the skies are clearly getting busier. According to the International Air Transport Association, an aviation industry trade organisation, that signifies good news for passengers when it comes to reduced fares and connectivity. But rising air traffic also means bad news for the environment.

Cheaper fares

The IATA released its 2018 Airline Industry Statistics report on Wednesday July 31, 2019.

Findings show a rising volume of flights around the world and the cheaper airfares that such an increase has given rise to. Statistics reveal that the real cost of commercial air transport has more than halved over the last 20 years.

According to the report, the average return airfare last year was 60 per cent lower than it was in 1998 - taxes and surcharges excluded.

''Airlines are connecting more people and places than ever before. The freedom to fly is more accessible than ever. And our world is a more prosperous place as a result. As with any human activity this comes with an environmental cost that airlines are committed to reducing,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general at IATA.

More people are flying

More travellers are flying than ever before, and the demand is expected to double by 2037. 
More travellers are flying than ever before, and the demand is expected to double by 2037. 

The report revealed that 4.3 billion passengers flew in 2018 on 126,000 flights. That’s a trend that does not look set to slow down any time soon. In fact, by 2037 the demand for air travel is predicted to double.

One region where air activity is sky rocketing is in Asia Pacific. The region took more than 34 per cent of the global air travel market share compared to 26 per cent in Europe, 22 per cent in North America and 10 per cent in the Middle East.

One reason for this is the volume of new aircraft in Asia, and expected to reach the continent in the near future. According to the World Economic Forum, Asia has more new planes on order than anywhere else in the world.

World's busiest international route: Hong Kong to Taipei

It’s also home to the world’s busiest route - from Seoul Gimpo to Jeju in South Korea on which 14.5 million passengers flew in 2018. Hong Kong to Taipei Taoyuan was the busiest international flight recorded, with 5.4 million travellers flying the route last year.

China in particular is witnessing an ever-expanding middle class where people are beginning to consider air travel for the first time. India too has seen its middle class population rise; and many of these travellers are looking to book their first flight.

The rise of low-cost carriers are pushing airfares down. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
The rise of low-cost carriers are pushing airfares down. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

To cope with demand, there has been an increase in low-cost carriers in the region and around the world. As well as established airlines such as AirAsia, Jetstar and GoAir, new players are coming on to the aviation scene. Vietnam’s Bamboo Airways launched last year. Pakistan is expected to commence low-cost flights with AirSial later this year. In Japan, Zipair Tokyo is the country’s freshest airline, with flights expected to take to the skies from early 2020.

Healthy competition

These low-cost airlines are forcing more traditional carriers - the likes of Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and China Eastern to adapt or perish. This has been good news for price-conscious travellers. Airlines have had to decrease fares, increase services or offer other incentives to passengers in order to survive in these crowded skies.

A question of sustainability

But while overcrowding in the air can mean good news for our wallets, the same can’t be said for the health of our planet. Air travel is facing a sustainability crisis.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg shuns air travel becasue of its harmful effects on the environment. 
Climate activist Greta Thunberg shuns air travel becasue of its harmful effects on the environment. 

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, announced plans to cross the Atlantic Ocean in August on an open-cockpit racing yacht to attend a United Nations summit meeting on global warming. She, like many others of her generation, are much more clued-up about the damage aviation can cause to the planet.

The airline industry has already announced goals of carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards. It also aims to cut CO2 emission to half of 2005 levels by 2050. But that’s probably still not good enough.

Instead, we need to look to alternative sustainable fuel sources for airplanes. The good news is, this already exists.

World's longest sustainable flight

Last week, EgyptAir made headlines for piloting the world’s longest flight powered solely by biofuel from Seattle to Cairo. The fuel used came from World Energy, the first facility designed to manufacture renewable jet fuel on a commercial scale. It proved that the substances needed to help fly more planet-friendly already exist. Now they just need to become an affordable reality.

Etihad flew the world's first ultra-long-haul singe-use plastic-free flight earlier this year. Courtesy Etihad Airways 
Etihad flew the world's first ultra-long-haul singe-use plastic-free flight earlier this year. Courtesy Etihad Airways 

Airlines too are taking more sustainable steps when it comes to in-flight facilities. Etihad flew the first ever ultra-long-haul plastic-free flight in April this year, from Abu Dhabi to Sydney. Emirates has pledged to reduce the amount of single-use plastics on board its aircraft. Airports are also taking note. Dubai Airports said it would ban all single-use plastics by 2020. It’s not yet enough, but it is a nudge in the right direction.

As the demand for air travel continues to climb, Junaic casts a positive light on this year’s statistics saying: “Aviation is the Business of Freedom. It liberates us from the constraints of geography and distance. In doing so, it empowers us to lead better lives, and makes the world a better place.”

Hopefully, we’ll be able to do this in a way that means that in eighteen years’ time, when air travel is expected to double, there will still be plenty of our planet worth visiting.

Updated: August 1, 2019 03:01 PM

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