The future of flying: Golden age of air travel may be over

The future of flying: Golden age of air travel may be over

The 50th anniversary of the Woodstock music festival, that symbolic but remote frolic in the mud that celebrated the day’s counterculture, has been celebrated with gusto in recent days, even if the 1969 audience is now probably more interested in free travel than free love. 

That Bethel, New York, Rubicon heralded, or rather endorsed, a huge change in how we live, but another less colourful development that accelerated from that moment has had a far greater social and environmental impact.

Just as Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, and Janis Joplin — all dead, two prematurely — set the tone for Woodstock’s “slice of heaven” weekend, air travel was becoming more affordable. 

Though still expensive, it was moving towards the everyday. 

Budget airlines, charter flights to the sun, and the huge, unsustainable surge in tourism were still in the future, but their arrival has fundamentally changed the way some of us live and work.

An immediate positive was that emigration was no longer a life sentence: It was possible to visit home, to stay connected in a way unimaginable to earlier generations. 

A year in Australia became, slightly later, a rite of passage for twentysomethings with even a modest, sub-Woodstock sense of adventure. 

They could reach Sydney or Melbourne in a day or two, rather than the weeks it took Karl Mullen’s 1950 British and Irish Lions, who went to Australia by sea. 

Today’s twentysomethings were/are almost invariably visited by parents. 

Some of those parents may have an apartment in one of Europe’s holiday destinations. Others may have come to regard air travel as normal, as almost a right. 

It became as ubiquitous as television and, just like television, its future, or at least its scale, is increasingly in question.

Just as Aer Lingus promotes Bloomington, Minnesota — 5,941km from Dublin — as a plausible shopping destination, and just as Ryanair customers face the prospect of being caught up in a pilot strike, the impact air travel is having on our planet cannot be ignored. 

Just as runway extensions are planned all around the world, we have realised that aviation, if it was a country, would be among the world’s top carbon dioxide producers. 

Aviation emissions have risen by 70% since the early years of this century and are expected to increase by as much as 700% by 2050. 

This, days after Iceland held a “funeral” for the once-huge Okjokull glacier lost to global warming, seems close enough to wilful self-destruction — especially as scientists have warned that hundreds of ice sheets on the subarctic island risk the same fate, provoking a new age of flooding for cities built on coastlines.

Suggestions that we curtail air travel are met with the kind of disdain pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing, Brylcreemed TV hosts from the 1970s reserved for the Woodstock generation, but it seems certain that when the centenary of that festival is marked, air travel will not be routine, not as easily accessed, as it is today. 

How that is done fairly, and how quickly it can be done, seem the only real questions. 

We cannot expect agriculture to radically reform if other sectors do not embrace change on a similarly disruptive scale.

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