I blogged earlier this week about the lack of a futures perspective in the 20-30 year decision about whether or not to build the third runway at Heathrow – and looked at energy, economics and climate change trends which all suggested that demand for air travel was more likely to fall than rise. In this second part I’m looking at some of the social trends which also seem to point in the same direction, and also trying to understand why the idea of aviation has so captured policy makers.

Let’s start by continuing the review of trends. I didn’t mention technology yesterday, but it is clearly helping companies restrict air travel by their employees, for both financial and climate change reasons. The quality of virtual meeting technology is improving, and usage is on the rise.

Virtual alternatives

It’s also worth thinking about the cost of the high end, immersive video-conferencing suite, which currently sells at about $1 million. The business case is challenging, if not impossible. If the costs of processing power continue to halve every eighteen months (and obviously that is an assumption), such technology will be less than a thousand dollars by the late 2020s – and will be being built into personal computers (however they look by then). There’s a social issue here as well. As employees take a more contingent view of their commitment to the workplace – and this is a long-term social and generational trend – they are less likely to want to put up with the disruption (not least to their family life) caused by extensive air travel. Security provisions haven’t helped, despite attempts to ‘fast-track’  valued and valuable passengers. They have extended the time involved in flying – important for short-haul flights, while diminishing the quality of the experience. It’s hard to feel like a customer while taking your shoes off for a security check.

It will remain true that virtual meeting requires some physical meeting – there seems to be some level of trust built through proximity – but it seems that the quantity of physical meetings is likely to fall. The increase in virtual meetings – whether through teleconferences or ‘webinars’ has been striking as our assumptions change about the nature of work and where and how it gets done.

Flying and inequality

The other social issue which is striking is about equity. For all of the claims that cheap flights have created some kind of democracy of air travel, the social gradient of air travel is steep. George Monbiot had some of this data in an article this  week:

The Civil Aviation Authority’s surveys show, the average gross household income of leisure passengers using Heathrow is £59,000 (the national average is £34,660); the average individual income of the airport’s business passengers (36% of its traffic) is £83,000. The wealthiest 18% of the population buy 54% of all tickets, the poorest 18% buy 5%.

In 2004, as he also reminds us, there were over five times as many passengers in classes A and B than in classes D and E. Which is why most of Ryanair’s newspaper advertising is in the Daily Telegraph. As with roads, only more so, the benefits  of aviation go to the wealthier and the costs (noise, pollution, and so on) fall on the poor. On one reading, the expansion in aviation over the last twenty years can be seen as a sign of Britain’s increasing political tolerance of inequality.

Health hazards

There are some emerging issues which are relevant – all of which are more likely to suppress demand. One is health hazards associated with flying – especially with long haul flights. A second is a move away from the ‘hub and spoke‘ model represented by big airports such as Heathrow, which benefits service providers more than users. At both ends of the market – budget leisure and the leased executive plane – the trends are towards direct flights which avoid the hubs.

The most serious emerging issue from the air industry’s perspective – is the increasing evidence of the serious effects on health of noise. The Heathrow proposals will increase the noise exposure of people living under the flight paths, while the medical evidence is hardening up. In a climate in whiich corporations are regarded as having liability for the consequences of their products and services, this feels like a potentially significant (and expensive) business hazard.

Given the trends and the evidence, the hardesst thing to understand is why politicians have –  over a long period of time – been so committed to the expansion of Healthrow that almost every  promise made about future limits on its growth has been broken. The extent of capture can be gauged from the fact that last year’s consultation had nowhere on it where respondents could object to the building of the runway.

Aviation and ‘modernity’

There are clues in the supporters of the pro-Heathrow lobby group Future Heathrow fronted by the former Labour MP Clive Soley: the aviation industry, obviously, the London business groups (London First, CBI), along with the TUC and the GMB. They are all people who share an economic view of the world – one which is shared by the Labour Party, which still broadly holds to the Croslandite view that shaped the party in the ’60s that economic growth is a precondition of improving distribution (though Crosland would have had sharp comments on tolerating high levels of inequality). I think there’s something deeper as well; that part of this economic view of the world has within it the idea that aviation is a sign of a modern economy. A telling remark – from a backbencher opposed to the third runway – was that the disagreement between Ed Miliband and Peter Mandelson was a “generational battle“. The younger generation perhaps needs some competing symbols of modernity.

As it happens, there are stories from other sectors about expensive infrastructure investments being made – unnecessarily – because of a failure to think clearly about trends.

Kielder Water in Northumbria, now the largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, was built to supply the predicted increase in water demand from the growth of manufacturing in the north-east. It was planned in the 1960s and built in between 1975 and 1981, and was opened by the Queen in 1982. The expansion of manufacturing, however, took place abroad, and we are still paying for the construction costs of the reservoir. At least Kielder attracts tourists and is unmatched as an area for outdoor leisure. If the third runway turns out to be a Kielder, the only legacy will be quite a lot of concrete with a village buried underneath it.