Sat, Aug 12, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The true cost of flying is not just to one's wallet

Flying was once an exotic experience; now, not only is it mundane, but the damage it does to the environment is unsupportable

By Stephen Bayley  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Before the environment was invented as a cause, we had to make do with Conservative bigotry to protect us from error. Appalled at the prospect of proletarians enjoying democratic travel, Victorian social critic John Ruskin mused on the rapacious penetration of a railway into the hitherto virgin Peak District in the north of England.

He boomed that the sole advantage to be gained from this "progress" was that every fool in the town of Birmingham could be in the town of Buxton and every fool in Buxton could be in Birmingham.

Sometimes at Heathrow Airport, I get an inkling of what he meant. Why is it always someone in front of me who wants to take a fridge-freezer on as hand baggage?

Acutely aware of the heavier-than-air formula and thrust-to-weight relationships, why are my flights always full of golfers with bags the weight of corpses? Ruskin's train of fools has become a plane of fools. And there are lots of takers.

Within 10 years, the culture of air travel has changed completely. Is it a Golden Age or one made of nasty pollutants? British Airways (now quaintly known as a "legacy" airline in the travel industry demotic) used to retain traces of the Imperium's tastes, hierarchies and disciplines. It was high-tech colonialism, adventure and paternalism executed by nerveless middle-class men of military stature.

A small inheritance allowed the 20th century woman who pioneered solo female traveling, Freya Stark, to buy her first air ticket: She was wrapped in sheepskins and bundled next to the pilot without even being strapped in. She described it as one of her best experiences.

Low cost has turned romance and adventure into ordeal. People used to get dressed up to fly. Now they dress down. Way, way down, as shocked aesthetes surviving Gatwick North at four in the morning can testify.

I recently asked: "How long is this flight?"

"Dunno, love," came the answer.

More air travel means worse air travel, but once you have let the genie of access out of the box, it is as difficult to put him back in as re-packing a partially inflated escape slide with one hand. What was once the rare indulgence of a privileged elite has become everyday.

When I was a child in Liverpool, in the northwest a visit to nearby Speke Airport's Art Deco building gave a thrilling sense of connection with the possibilities of Modernism. Strange to say how they have now been so completely realized not by Le Corbusier, but by easyJet. That same child used to go on a 30km drive to the coastal town of Southport as a weekend treat. Now people in Liverpool go to Barcelona for the weekend. Not, perhaps, to connect with Antoni Gaudi or Ildefonso Cerda, but because Catalonia is cheaper and just as accessible as the Lancashire coast.

The problem with air travel is the problem with culture in general, at least as identified by that famous American man of letters George Santayana: If profound and noble, it must remain rare; if common, it must become mean. When profound and noble, it used to cost several thousand dollars to go to New York; now it is as cheap as chips.

But these savings have their price. Certainly, in a well-organized life, an individual rarely encounters such frustration, degradation, inconvenience, authoritarianism, squalor, claustrophobia, humiliation, frustration, despair and fear as when he chooses to fly. And that is just in the airport, even before take off and the distant prospect of Sigmet (the nasty abbreviation for "significant meteorological activity").

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