As I See It: Terry Murden
Sir Richard Branson wants our help. His Virgin Atlantic airline is asking for a £500 million loan and says that without it the business may collapse and thousands of staff will be out of a job. That’s tough, but it may be necessary.
Opposition to his request has come from those who object to bailing out billionaires and insist that they either use their own resources or raise money from their chums in high places. Governments around the world, including those in Denmark and Australia have said no to providing a rescue package.
Virgin Atlantic, nor any other airline, has a right to survive. Many industries have been allowed to wither and die, from cotton to coal mining. In the early 1980s swathes of manufacturing was wiped out and, in many cases, the closures took whole communities with them.
Virgin Australia is already in administration and, at risk of appearing insensitive, the airline may have to fail. It has asked to be given the same treatment as easyJet which received a £600m loan. But easyJet is in better shape and therefore less of a risk.
More to the point, rejecting Virgin’s approaches is not simply to prevent further drawing on the taxpayer’s largesse. The future of airlines should be assessed on the industry’s contribution to the emissions crisis and even to the spread of coronavirus in the first place.
The pandemic has changed our outlook and our values, including our view of transport, commuting, air and noise pollution. A survey revealed that only 9% want a full return to life before coronavirus as people across the world rekindle a link to nature and a slower way of life, the sound of birdsong, seeing wildlife in cities, breathing cleaner air.
The motoring organisation – somewhat counter intuitively – has called for investment to be switched from road building to broadband connectivity. Home working and teleconferencing has made us re-evaluate the need for so many face-to-face meetings and conferences.
As governments rebuild our economy they need to acknowledge the new ‘normal’ and how, by definition, it does not mean returning to the way we were.
The Danes and the Australians have shown that things can be different. The UK must do likewise. As for the airlines, their survival must be conditional on cleaning up their act, but also accepting that the industry needs to shrink, not grow. We need fewer flights, certainly non-essential flights.
In this new context, calls to reduce and scrap air passenger duty (air departure tax in Scotland) in order to encourage more travel, appear misplaced and just plain wrong. If by doubling or trebling APD it means some people will not be able to afford a flight then so be it. There is no entitlement to fly any more than there is an entitlement to live in a mansion or own a Bentley.
If we have learned anything from this pandemic it is that the public will respond when requested to do so, just as we’ve turned against over-use of plastic. We have shown we can do without so much travel, commuting, stress…and that we can all live simpler lives.
We now have to lower our expectations and learn that less means more. Sorry, Sir Richard, but that should mean fewer aircraft.