OPINION: Airlines on the brink of demonisation

One of the more wonderfully absurd news items this week was that caravan sales are booming because of global warming.

According to a report, people are becoming embarrassed about flying off for foreign holidays and larger than usual numbers have decided to buy a caravan and holiday at home instead.

Intuitively, I doubt that dragging a caravan round Britain’s already congested roads will create a lesser carbon foot print than taking an Easyjet flight to Alicante, but that is not the point. In a situation like this it is not the truth that matters, but people’s perceptions of it.

The surge in caravan sales is important because it highlights a fact that the airline and associated leisure industries have been very slow to come to terms with. They are rapidly being positioned as the great Satan in the global warming debate.

It is easy to see why. Any serious attack on carbon emissions is going to require a huge change in Western lifestyles and even then will be totally useless if India, China and the other developing nations do not take similar measures – which they are unlikely to do if it means slowing down their growth rates. As a result people feel scared but powerless, wanting to do something, but having no idea what. Blaming air travel conveniently offloads some of our guilt.

The airline response has been pretty feeble with the exception of Michael O Leary’s typically robust rebuttal, and it has been uncoordinated. Some have sought to gain competitive advantage – witness EasyJet’s stressing the newness and relative cleanness of its fleet. But there appears to have been no industry-wide initiative.

This makes for an interesting contrast with the behaviour of other industries, for example alcohol. Its leading lights formed the Portman Group when their industry came under the cosh for seeming to encourage binge drinking. It signalled a huge drive to show that the industry shared public and political concerns.

But, as a responsible industry, it wanted solutions which would work, not those which were little more than gesture politics. This may or may not be a template for the air transport industry, but it is losing the PR battle so badly that it must surely do something beyond keeping its head down and hoping the storm will pass.

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