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BA’s “Go” scheme threatens to make life even worse for the people living near airports

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 23rd May 1998.

Tourism, unlike anything else we do, only seems to get cheaper. Last week, the High Court rejected easyJet’s attempt to stop British Airways from launching its new “Go” scheme. As a result, even during July and August, British tourists will be able to buy return flights to Rome, Milan and Copenhagen for just £100. “This is,” BA informs us, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves, “great news for the travelling public”.

It may be great news for travellers, but it’s rather less cheering for the people left behind. For the boom in air travel is now among the most troublesome environmental and public health problems on earth.

Over the last ten years, passenger miles flown by UK airlines have increased by eight per cent a year. By 2016 the number of passengers using the London airports alone is expected to double to 160 million, an average of nearly three flights per year for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom.

It’s not hard to see that this means noisier and noisier skies. The Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise has brought together data from all over the world about the effects on the people underneath. Researchers have demonstrated that sedative use increases by eight per cent in areas affected by aircraft noise, while people living within ten kilometres of an airport consume 14 per cent more anti-asthma drugs. Around Los Angeles Airport, mortality rates are five per cent higher than in quieter places: suicide accounts for much of the difference.

Most distressing is the impact on children. One study shows that the reading ability of 12-14 year olds whose schools lie under flight paths is impaired by 23 per cent, while children of all ages are more likely to develop anxiety disorders when routinely exposed to aircraft noise.

More flights, of course, means more airports. As the battles over the second runway at Manchester and the fifth terminal at Heathrow show, nothing is more upsetting to local people than airport expansion. Not only does noise multiply and countryside disappear, but the volume of traffic on the roads surges. The pressure group Transport 2000 calculates that every return ticket generates an average of four car journeys. No development in Britain attracts more traffic than Heathrow.

But the local impact of air transport is the least of its plagues. The transport specialist Dr Meyer Hillman has shown that every passenger on a return flight to Florida discharges 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Climate scientists estimate that total emissions per person per year should be little more than half this amount, if the worst effects of climate change are to be avoided.

Data being prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are expected to show that aircraft emissions are responsible for about ten per cent of the carbon dioxide we produce. They’re likely to rise five-fold by 2100. Moreover, as planes burn their fuel at high altitudes, the carbon they release is less likely to be reabsorbed by forests or oceans than other emissions, and more likely to supplement the greenhouse layer. Sulphur dioxide produced by planes crossing the polar regions also contributes to ozone depletion.

Yet aircraft emissions were excluded from the international climate negotiations in Kyoto last year, as they were considered too “politically difficult” to handle. Not only are the emissions hard to ascribe to a particular country, but the airline lobby is also extraordinarily powerful. Flight operators are able to offer such astonishing deals to travellers partly because their iron grip on government has ensured that airline fuel, uniquely, is exempt from taxation.

The only means by which the British government recoups any revenue from flight companies is the airport tax first levied by Kenneth Clarke. Small as it is, it is furiously contested by the airlines, who describe it as “ridiculous”. It is more than counterbalanced by a huge government subsidy for air travel, in the form of duty-free goods. All in all, it’s hardly surprising that campaigners reacted with incredulity when Gordon Brown appointed Sir Colin Marshall, the former chairman of BA, as head of his energy tax review team.

The expansion of air travel, BA and other companies argue, should be allowed to proceed unmolested, as it’s critical to the health of the UK economy. In truth, however, the entire air transport industry contributes just 0.7 per cent to the UK’s GDP, or no more than estate agents do. The costs, borne by some of the most vulnerable people on earth, are immeasurable.

The cheaper life becomes for tourists, the more expensive it becomes for everyone else; their enjoyment rises in direct proportion to other people’s misery. Next time you leave your troubles behind, spare a thought for those you’ve left them with.