By Robert McLachlan
Qantas Airlines’ 7-hour “flight to nowhere”, that sold out in 10 minutes with prices from A$787 to A$3787, seemed like a sick joke to climate advocates. Apart from the waste of fuel and the pointless emissions, passengers would be able to see first-hand, from a plane just like those that carried coronavirus around the world so effectively, the sweeping devastation caused by last summer’s “climate fires” and the global-warming induced bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. “Would it be more efficient just to crash it in the Great Barrier Reef?” asked Dan Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council for Clean Transportation.
Now a travel enthusiast has suggested that Air New Zealand could follow suit, offering scenic flights of the entire country (not forgetting the Chathams). Actually, New Zealand does have a proud tradition of scenic flights, from small beginnings in the 1930s, to the famous glacier landings that began in the 1950s, to the helicopter flights of today.
But apart from Air New Zealand’s flights to Antarctica in the 1970s – flights that have continued since then from Australia, and that Qantas is now offering in another of its Boeing 787s, departing from a choice of five cities – New Zealand hasn’t seen anything on this scale.
So why shouldn’t it? After all, if there were customers for an Air New Zealand flight to nowhere, they’d get something that’s valuable to them, and they’d get to help our national flag carrier through some tough times to boot. What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is how it looks. Air New Zealand has a fantastic reputation for sustainability. To a hardcore greenie that might sound like a joke, but even seasoned climate campaigner Jonathan Porritt, their chief sustainability advisor, called them ‘the least unsustainable airline in the world’. What’s more, our international tourist industry, which relies on aviation, is largely based around our environmental image – “100% Pure”. Even before the pandemic, many people were pointing out how important it is that that image should be based on reality.
Aviation is important to New Zealand for more than just tourism. It ties families together, it transports students and workers. It’s about the value of transporting people from A to B, not from A to A. On the back of that argument, the global aviation industry has been able to get a golden ticket fostering unlimited growth: air travel doubled in the decade to 2019, and is projected to triple again by 2050. (If that came to pass, aviation would then be using all of the available remaining carbon budget.) The industry has escaped taxes on jet fuel and limits on carbon emissions. There’s not even GST charged on international flights.
Since Covid-19, the industry has been a recipient of massive bailouts – about $150 billion worldwide, equal to their prior five years of profits. A lot of this government money will be wasted: a study published in May by Joseph Stiglitz and others found that airline bailouts were the very worst of all options on both financial and climate grounds. In New Zealand, the government has so far provided $600 million towards the aviation industry as well as a $900 million loan facility to Air New Zealand.
Somehow a way needs to be found to make a pathway leading towards both financial and environmental sustainability. It could involve less travel – administered through adjustments to charges, landing slots, and/or visas; it could involve investing in synthetic jet fuel. For the tourist industry, it could involve fewer tourists staying for longer. The Tourism Futures Task Force is considering the future of the industry right now, in the context of the ‘Four Capitals’ – economic, environmental, social, and cultural. You can send them your thoughts on this: in such an enormous disruption, the full effect of which hasn’t even begun to be felt, everyone’s voice is needed.
What we don’t need are flights to nowhere.