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OPINION: Aviation at a Crossroads

The past couple of years have not been kind to the global aviation industry. Whether it’s the European union implementing a misguided carbon taxation scheme, the Indian government crushing its nascent airline industry under the weight of oppressive regulations and heavy fuel taxation, increased “NIMBY” (not-in-my-backyard : a term used to describe local residents who oppose aviation development near their residences)” activity in the west holding back growth in the airline sector, or a global airline industry plagued by rising fixed costs and softened demand in the face of the Global financial crisis, there is little doubt that the headwinds faced by the global airline industry are amongst the worst in its history.

Yet despite the apparent irrelevance of the airline industry to our daily lives, its potential decline has profound implications for my entire generation. To start with, it is important to define the essential role that aviation plays in local communities and in the economy as a whole. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), in 2011 civil aviation alone contributed to and supported more than $1.3 trillion in economic activity as well as 10 million jobs. These estimates ignore the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity created and supported by military aviation; both directly in the air force, as well as in the thousands of companies involved in the supply chains of building and maintaining military aircraft for use both at home and with our allies abroad. In several communities, airlines, airports, and aircraft manufacturers are an important source of jobs- especially because positions in the former two sectors can’t realistically be outsourced.

On a more visceral level, the airline industry has contributed heavily to global and US economic growth. The most important aspect is that it makes sharing ideas, knowledge, and skills much easier. In the past, if you wanted to collaborate on a project with a group of engineers from Tokyo, it would take them days, even weeks to cross the Pacific by boat. But thanks to the miracle of modern aviation, you can now have them by your side in less than 24 hours, and at a reasonable fare to boot. This enhanced dissemination of knowledge and know-how has helped drive economic growth around the world, increasing the standard of life for everyone. On a more basic level, air cargo allows precious, time-sensitive, and/or valuable goods to be shipped around the world almost instantly – carving out new markets for exotic fruits and goods, as well as American exports. In today’s America, when unemployment amongst my peers is close to 15%, we can ill afford to lose the jobs provided by directly by aviation, let alone the many more indirectly made possible by air travel and air freight.

On a societal level, we all benefit when different cultures and viewpoints are brought together at common locations to discuss, integrate, and assimilate. Some of the best things about life in America (“Gangnam Style,” basketball, even apple pie) are foreign inventions brought here by immigrants. It is absolutely critical that we continue to make the world more interconnected, so that we can maximize the quality of life of all of the world’s citizens. It is no accident that as the aviation world has developed over the last few years; the degree of global integration has grown exponentially alongside. And in an increasingly uncertain environment which has led many economists to question whether the economy will even grow at all moving forward (or if we have settled into a “Great Stagnation”), cutting off a source and facilitator of economic activity makes little sense.

On a personal level, it kills me to see an industry that I love so much slowly be slowly squeezed to death (though there are bright spots like the United Arab Emirates and Singapore) by incompetent governance and an oblivious populace.

 And the threats to global aviation are numerous and diverse in nature. Part of the trouble is the incessant obsession with carbon dioxide emissions, and the general effect of environmentalism. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), global aviation accounts for just under 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Yet the European Union proposed an invasive and expensive carbon tax, guaranteed to reduce airline activity and harm not only its own aviation industry, but those around the world. Environmentalists, because of their insistence on protecting each and every animal regardless of the cost, have effectively prevented the expansion of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, because the only viable option is to expand onto protected wetlands on Jamaica Bay. This lack of suitable airport expansion in the NYC area has in turn held back aviation development, as the number of flights at each New York City airport has been capped.

But because the runway capacity in the area is insufficient, there is now a huge backup of flights (planes lining up to land on runways) and an extraordinary amount of delays in the NYC airspace. The greatest irony of the situation is that now, tons upon tons of extra carbon dioxide emissions are being spewed into the air because the flights are forced to wait in line with their engines on at the airport or in the air. Many climate scientists would argue that this actually has a greater environmental cost than the loss of a few square miles worth of wetlands which could alleviate, if not solve outright, the problem. But the threats to aviation extend beyond inconsistent and incoherent environmental opposition. In recent years, the political power of so called NIMBYs has expanded. Around the world, especially in the great European cities like Frankfurt (where local residents passed a poorly thought out curfew for flights that decimated Frankfurt’s air cargo industry – likely creating more jobs for the superhubs in the Middle East) and London (where a combination of environmental, governmental, and local opposition to building a third runway at already slot restricted London Heathrow Airport threatens the place of London as a hub in the future aviation hegemony), but also in places like Philadelphia (where local residents are desperately trying to expand the constricted Philadelphia International Airport’s capacity). Admittedly, these residents are affected by airports in the region, but I have problems with using this as an argument to halt development.

The first is that in most, if not all cases, the local residents moved to the region after the airport was built there – they should have been aware of the risk that airports can expand and grow in importance. But more importantly, the needs of the few (local residents around airports opposing development typically number less than 1% of the population of the metro area that it serves) should not outweigh the needs of many. In times of crisis, like our economy today, it makes little sense to sacrifice new jobs and economic activity that would benefit the general region for such limited benefit.

About Vinay Bhaskara

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