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do we really need to fly?
by richard cole

Who would have thought that a bit of dust would close European air space so totally, for so long, unprecedented in aviation history.

When the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull erupted last Thursday, April 15, it began spewing millions of tons of microscopic glass fragments and sulphur dioxide into the jet stream, which spread the cloud across Europe. It is still erupting. The flight ban is still in place.

So why the ban? This dust is glass. It will strip the paint from a plane, make the windshield into an opaque mess and stop a jet engine. So fly above it? Sorry, can’t do that since to get above it we need to fly through it.

As a representative for the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council said of the flight ban, “Aviation is a very unforgiving business and I don't believe you can do anything but err on the side of caution.”

Not surprisingly, the airlines are unhappy. BA, for example, is loosing an estimated £25 million a day. Some are claiming the closure of airspace is an over reaction. Passengers are stranded across the globe. Food is rotting, stuck at airports. I know of two people personally who are unable to travel, one stuck at home which is a bit inconvenient but not a disaster, one stuck in New York which is a bit more inconvenient but again not a complete disaster.

On the other hand, it’s gone gloriously quiet. I live near a flight path into Stanstead airport used if the wind is in a particular direction. Planes go over at 7000 feet, just high enough to hear them. Nearby are two RAF bases and daily we have Apache helicopters flying about on training exercises. Air Sea Rescue Sea King helicopters regularly go over, as do Chinooks. The last four days have been bliss.

Which has raised the question in my mind of do we really need an aviation industry? Of course, we need to get everyone home from this current emergency but with the rising cost of fuel and the industry’s huge environmental impact perhaps we should be starting to examine the question.

Let’s face it; we seemed to have managed to get about before the development of passenger aircraft. What do we use planes for anyway? Let’s look at some facts.

The biggest global sector is commercial passenger aircraft, with over 18m flights annually and more than a billion passengers. These are people going on vacation, business trips, visiting relatives and so on. Air freight through the UK amounts to more than 2 million tonnes annually. Military flights in the second biggest sector but statistics are, to say the least, a bit vague. General aviation, all those small and private aircraft make up the third sector and these are mainly for pleasure.

So do we really need to fly all over the globe for our annual vacation? No. It’s nice to see other places and cultures but who has really explored every corner of their bit of the planet, before flying to another. We could vacation nearer to home; say within a train ride or reasonable drive.

Do I really need to make that business trip? No. With modern telecoms, I can set up conference video calls and send emails.

Do I really need to buy food out of season and flown half way round the world? No. I can get locally grown food in season.

Do I really need to fly to get a thrill? No. There are many alternatives.

There are those who would argue the case for medical flights and other emergencies but we managed before. Everything just took a bit longer.

And when we’ve wrung the last drop of oil out of our poor planet, then what?

We do all this flying because we can and if we couldn’t, we’d find another way, wouldn't we.


I live in Suffolk, England with my family. After teaching for years I ended up in a high octane job in London advising the UK government on educational stuff. I retired early to pursue my writing career. Now, I write and ride a ridiculously large motor cycle, although not at the same time.

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