Air Travel Was Once A Given, Not So Much Anymore. Did We Take It For Granted All Along?
The first time I experienced air travel was when I took a plane in high school. I went on holiday with a friend and her family. I didn’t start travelling early, like a lot of my friends who went abroad with the parents or families. But, I definitely made up for it later on! And while some of my travels have been overland, taking the train or driving, a whole load of my travels (pre-COVID) started off getting on a plane.
In fact, I’d become so accustomed to flying years later (it then did become part of my job as a tour guide, to be fair) that it seemed to me like nothing more than catching a train or a bus. The only difference was you had to remember your passport. I often had a ‘flight bag’ ready at my door, packed with everything I needed. So I’d just grab that, bounce through the procedures at the airport without even batting an eyelid, and I’d be sat at the gate in no time.
I’d also become quite adept at finding and booking the cheapest flights around. So often it was only a bit more expensive if I was going to get the train or bus. As I got older, there seemed to be more and more flights offered and they were getting cheaper every year.
Air Travel in Europe
I’m not sure about other countries, but air travel throughout Europe had really begun to go too far. You could travel from one country to another for sometimes less than $10. And air travel had become so cheap to fly abroad, that there were many occasions people posted online about how they skipped UK’s expensive train service coming home from university and instead flew abroad to Spain or Greece, then back into another city in the UK.
That might sound unbelievable. Although that has never happened to me, I can definitely imagine it being true. Especially since it cost me around $70 to get home from university every time.
Air Travel in Asia
I took this habit with me out of Europe and into Asia as I first moved to Japan. Unfortunately, there is no RyanAir in Japan and so long gone were the cheap flights. But my desire to travel remained firm and I spent every holiday I had traveling the many islands of the country, from North to South. Each time, hopping on a plane like it was something completely normal. Not thinking plane travel might be bad for the environment, or might one day disappear.
I then moved to China, where air travel helped me to explore the four corners of the Middle Kingdom. (Although, to be fair, I got a hell of a lot of trains, too). And during my time there I also travelled back and forth to the UK like it was nothing. I dipped in and out of the southern hemisphere a few times, and took flights to everywhere from Laos to Bhutan…
In China, I worked as a tour guide taking people in and out of North Korea. Most of these times were on a flight, too. So I was so used to getting this flight I’d have my exit and entry cards already written out and I’d know the closest coffee shop to the flight gate – as well as recognize the flight attendants.
How Much is Too Much?
As I’m sure it is for most people, it’s crazy to think that flights would stop. Airports would close. And borders would completely shut down.
I’d grown up in a world of movement. Where I’d taken that movement for granted.
As I sit writing this in Tonga now, it’s hard to look back at a life where plane travel was both affordable and possible to the extent it was. The world was so small to me back then. Too small, perhaps. Crossing the world was just a day’s plane journey. How can the world seem big when you can get across it in a matter of hours?
Even when I first came to Tonga, I looked at it on the map, and not for one second did I think, wow, that’s pretty remote! Because it wasn’t remote back then. There were flights almost every day. Even on this tiny island with a population of 100,000, there were frequent fights.
If there were that many planes coming to Tonga, how many planes were coming in and out of other countries? And what kind of irreversible impact does this have on the environment?
Now, when I see the one cargo plane per week, and the once-a-month passenger flight coming into land, it puts everything back into perspective for me and certainly made me realize how I’d taken for granted the ability to move around the globe. Especially since, right now, I can’t even get back to the UK.
Air Travel and the Environment
Mile for mile, flying is the most damaging way to travel for the environment due to the CO2 emissions from the plane. Something we rarely think about, but we should be thinking about a lot more! According to a calculator from the UN’s civil aviation body, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a return flight from London to New York emits approx. 0.67 tonnes of CO2 per passenger (BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566) which may just seem like a random figure you can’t get your head around… But it’s actually equivalent to 11% of the emissions from someone living in Ghana over a year. Kind of crazy when you think about it.
Domestic flights produce the most, and coming in second are international flights. On the other end of the scale in terms of most environmentally friendly, is taking the train or a bus.
What We Can Do?
You could take a leaf out of Greta Thunberg’s book and give up air travel completely. But, realistically, not many of us are going to do that…
Few good things will come out of COVID. But maybe this is one of them. A bit of perspective on things we shouldn’t take for granted anymore, and a lifestyle change to help better the environment as well as the way we travel and treat air travel.
I can’t see myself casually plane-hopping from country to country anymore. I hope in the future I’m much more conscious about how I am travelling. And, if there are any better ways that may have less of an environmental impact, such as car-sharing or taking the train.
Maybe there will be a time once again where I take a 2-hour flight to go somewhere for the weekend and come back Monday morning for work. But I hope at that point, I’ll at least not take that flight as a given. Not take that opportunity as a given. But instead I hope that I appreciate it more, and ultimately make sure to make the most of my experience.