Pandemic disruption should cause us to reassess aviation policies and airport expansion

April 22, 2020 at 2:12 am 2 comments

Virgin Airlines goes into volubntary administration due to Pandemic

The Management of Virgin Airlines has put the company into administration, due to the impact of the pandemic in reducing need for essential travel, and the huge debt the airline has accumulated. Most Virgin planes are presently sitting at airports, huge stranded assets.

Labort MP for Wills, Peter Khalil, has said in a Facebook Post Labor has been calling on the Morrison Government to Save Virgin. But is this the wisest move given the future for passenger aviation demand in a pandemic with no assurances of a vaccine available and the level of greenhouse gas emissions and climate impact by aviation?

Virgin Airlines is presently owned by Etihad Airways (20.94%), Singapore Airlines (20.09%), Nanshan Group (19.98%), HNA Group (19.82%), Virgin Group (10.42%). Bailing out Virgin is bailing out foreign corporations, some of these owned by other nations.

Virgin Airlines is the second airline in a government encouraged two airline industrial sector policy, supposedly to encourage competitive airline ticket prices. The two airline competition drives ticket prices so low that externalities such as the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, and high altitude climate impact, are not factored into airline ticket pricing, or regulated at the levels necessary by the Federal Government.

The government has set a 28 percent across the board emissions reduction target for Australia. Where is the government plan to achieve this in aviation?

Aviation is a complex area, involving employment – jobs for many thousands of people – but also a sector with huge greenhouse gas emissions and climate impact (See Note 4) It needs to undergo a transition.

International aviation will likely be dead for next 2-5 years due to the pandemic and need for closed borders or very tight border quarantine arrangements. It will probably take rollout of a vaccine for international travel to recover, which might take 5-10 years.

If Australia eliminates the Corona Virus in Australia, some normality will resume, but this will entail very tight border biosecurity and quarantine on all international travel. This is a good option for some recovery in domestic passenger aviation.

If suppression is the end game for Australia, we will go through a cycle of epidemics in which we will need to apply social lockdown to ensure some control of virus transmission so that it does not overwhelm our hospital system. This will be a continual cycle of epidemics and economic disruption until a vaccine is available or herd immunity (between 60-80 percent of population) is achieved. This may take a long time. Medical researchers are active with over 75 vaccine candidate projects, but the earliest for a viable vaccine is at least 12-18 months away. There is no guarantee any of these vaccines will be successful through all the clinical trials. Ramping up a population wide vaccination program would involve even more time on top of this.

We need to be assessing the aviation sector for moving forward into the future in terms of jobs, energy, and climate impact. Knee jerk policy reponses does no favours, partcularly for those whose jobs are presently on the line.

In this pandemic crisis we need to be assessing the future of aviation:

* Advocating no airline bailouts. If any government money is given to airlines it should at the very least represent an ownership stake.

* Advocating fast track build of high speed east coast rail network. This will take probably a decade to build but is essential for moving domestic travel to a more sustainable alternative. 3 hours between Melbourne and Sydney, and Sydney to Brisbane should be achievable, at fares approximating average intercity airfares. (It was good to see Catherine King push this on April 19 Age article see note 1)

* Advocating immediate moratorium on airport expansion – Melbourne and Perth both have new runways being planned, Sydney a new airport. The pandemic should put on hold these development plans while the future role of aviation is being assessed. The growth models underlying airport expansion should be deeply questioned at this time. I know the Melbourne Airport Masterplan failed to address several high risk but low probability events including the impact of a pandemic. (See Climate Action Moreland submission Note 2)

* This is a time to transition. Many businesses and individuals are embracing video conferencing. No, it isn’t perfect and people are still learning. After the crisis passes many businesses and people will continue to do video conferencing rather than a quick work trip to an intercity office. This can be and should be built upon through good government policy. Demand for aviation may well not recover, or recover extremely slowly, to pre-pandemic times.

* Advancing opportunities to grow a local aero industry with government support for local businesses for research and development in electric planes for regional short haul transport. The Nordic countries are already showing the way in this. (see note 3 below)

We should be concerned about the many Virgin staff and their employment future, but the solution is not to continue with business as usual, or nationalisation of Virgin Airlines, but to analyse the problem, the future of aviation and issues around emissions reduction, and devise appropriate solutuions.

Some of this may require redeployment and retraining and structural adjustment programs. That is the role of government to address.

I know change is never easy. But we should take care not to make the situation worse through impulsive knee jerk policy responses that don’t consider the complexities of the aviation sector moving forward in developing a more sustainable future.

“We’ve known for years that we need to radically change our attitude to flying; Covid-19 could be the nudge we all needed.” says Nicole Badstuber, a transport policy and travel behaviour researcher at University College London and the University of Westminster in a Guardian news article (9 April, 2020).

sign the petition #SavePeopleNotPlanes: Red Lines for Aviation Bailouts

Save People Not Planes petition

John Englart
Convenor Climate Action Moreland

1. Catherine King – High Speed rail, The Age, 19 April 2019

2. Climate Action Moreland submission on Draft Melbourne Airport Master plan, October 8, 2018

3. I attended a seminar at the Nordic Countries pavillion at COP25 in Madrid on the future of aviation, with research into electrification of short haul flight. Something for Australia to investigate

4. I gave you a copy some time ago of Mark Carter’s 32pp research on the climate impact of aviation – The Elephant in the Room. Worthwhile revisiting this document.

Click to access The-elephant-in-the-sky_online_s.pdf

Entry filed under: aviation, transport. Tags: , , , , , .

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