Saying Goodbye to Air Travel


14 May 2008
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by Richard Heinberg

The airline industry has no future. The same is true for airfreight. No air carrier has a viable plan to make a profit with oil at current prices—much less in years to come as the petroleum available to world markets dwindles rapidly.

That’s not to say that jetliners will disappear overnight, but rather that the cheap flights we’ve seen in the past will soon be fading memories. In a few years jet service will be available only to the wealthy, or to thegovernment and military.

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic says he wants to use biofuels topower his fleet of 747’s and Airbuses. There are still some bugs to beworked out in terms of basic chemistry, but it might be possible inprinciple—if only we could make enough biodiesel or ethanol withoutfurther driving up food prices and wrecking the soil. Even then itwould be very costly fuel.

Are there other options for powered flight?

Hydrogen could be burned in jet engines, but doing so would require a complete redesign of our commercial aircraft fleet, and H2 would be expensive to make—unless the growing trend toward more costly electricity (as we phase out depleting, polluting coal and increasingly scarce natural gas) can somehow be reversed.

Last year I was invited to give the keynote address at the world’s firstElectric Aircraft Symposium. NASA and Boeing sent representatives, butall told there were only about 20 in attendance. The planes beingdiscussed were ultralight two-seaters: that’s the limit of current orforeseeable battery technology. These might come in handy in a futurewhere they are the only option for emergency air travel (blimps need depleting helium or explosive hydrogen). But forget about 300-seat planes running on solar or wind power, ferrying middle-class vacationers to Bali or Venice.

There are good reasons to cut down on air travel voluntarily: flying not only swells our personal carbon emissions but spews CO2 and other pollutants into the stratosphere, where they do the most damage. However, the worsening scarcity of the stuff we use for making jet fuel takes thediscussion out of the realm of optional moral action and into that ofeconomic necessity and personal adaptation.

I fly to educate both general audiences and policy makers about fossilfuel depletion; in fact, I’m writing this article aboard a plane enroute from Boston to SanFrancisco. I wince at my carbon footprint, but console myself with thehope that my message helps thousands of others to change theirconsumption patterns. This inner conflict is about to be resolved: thedecline of affordable air travel is forcing me to rethink my work. I’malready starting to do much more by video teleconference, much less byjet.

Those who live far from family will be more than inconvenienced, as will the hundreds of thousands who work for the airline industry directly orindirectly, or the millions who depend on tourism or airfreight for anincome. These folks will have few options: teleconferencing canaccomplish only so much.

Our species’ historically brief fling with flight has been fun,educational, and enriching on many levels to those fortunate enough tobenefit from it. Saying goodbye will be difficult. But maybe as we dowe can say hello to greater involvement in our local communities.

Photo by Frank Loohuis by-nc-sa

Absent any significant new

Absent any significant new source of energy, I agree: Air travel the way we know it today will certainly once again become a privilege of the wealthy few. I'm certainly not an expert on air travel, but I often thought that Zeppelins may make a comeback as a way of traveling by air in a more energy efficient manner. I guess one could even cover the hull of the Zeppelin with solar cells and power the engines with solar power. At least to some extent. Greetings from Vienna / Austria

Airships are the future

I agree with the above poster that airship travel is the alternative. I'm one of the co-founders of the Airship League and we're already making connections within the airship industry to promote the technology, aid businesses, and promote educational airship projects and contests. You can check out for more details. The site hasn't been updated recently but the project is well on its way. is also the leading news source on what's happening in the airship industry to date. If you'd like more information or to join the project let me know, there is contact info on the site. I don't mean to spam the thread but no one really knows much about the airship industry so I thought I'd chime in a say there is hope and you can also do something about it. :) Cheers, Paul in Paris

Zeppelins....where do we get

Zeppelins....where do we get our hydrogen and helium now? from fossil fuels.At a loss of 30%energy off the bat. Long distance travel will be by sailing ship.

Back to the Future

Years ago I flew almost every week for my job. There were only two type of travelers then: businessmen and wealthy flyers flying for leisure. You rarely ever saw any families, nor children, and I was normally the only woman on the plane other than the stewardesses. If there is air travel in our future it will probably revert to something like this past. Personally after also flying to speak and do media for years when planes were packed with everyone for every possible purpose, I am no longer flying unless absolutely necessary. I haven't flown anywhere in several years. We drive when possibe, but even that may be curtailed for many. Thanks you for your musing. Sarah

I don't even see the rich flying much

Frankly Richard, I think air travel will become out of reach for the wealthy too for several reasons. Shrinking schedules: As the general public becomes unable to fly as far or as often as they can today, airlines will have to cut schedules back. With super high fuel prices, airlines will have to keep the empty seats to a minimum and, since the airlines will be stuck with the same oversized aircraft (the energy intensity of making new, smaller aircraft for a rapidly diminishing market will make buying replacements impossible), that means less flights, probably way less. Less connections, less choice of departure times, less choice of cities, eventually the rich start doing less flying too. Shrinking numbers of airports: As airline companies cut flights and/or destinations, financing ongoing airport operations will become such a burden on local and regional governments and port authorities (entities that most likely will be facing other large financial pressures in other areas of their operations due to Peak Oil as well) that many airports will simply be closed by their operators. Financial burdens and the screams of taxpayers about the costs will make it virtually impossible for governmental airport operators to take funds from other areas to keep airports open. Indeed, the air traffic control system itself could become too expensive to operate either, requiring the remaining aircraft to, pardon the pun, wing it to their destination without external guidance or traffic separation. Hmmm, no thanks to that for me. Just the same, the wealthy could buy their own aircraft and build their own airports. Of course many own such equipment now, and some such folk own their own runway, but the utility of all this private property and equipment will be greatly diminished when there are substantially fewer available airports to fly to and limited, if any, ATC to keep traffic separated and safe. In a way, the situation would be similar to owning a private railroad car during the time when the passenger rail network collapsed 50 years ago - there weren't many railroads with passenger trains left for a private car to hitch a ride on, and the number of rail sidings that existed next to railroad stations for private cars to be parked on crashed from the thousands down to a handful. Private rail cars became mainly collector's items. So it could to be with private jets and flying for the rich. Stephen B. suburban MA

It's premature to call the death of the airline industry.

In the United States today, more than ever, families are spread out all over the country. For example, I live in New York, my parents live in Chicago, and my sister lives in Los Angeles. The long distances between us mean that flying is the only practical way to travel. Even if plane tickets were twice as much as what we pay now, it would still be the most economical way to travel, especially between New York and Los Angeles. Even the most environmentally conscious expert would agree: it's far more efficient to fly 200 people from New York to LA then to have them drive across the country in ones and twos. How about instead of uselessly calling the death of the airline industry, you do something useful like advocate for a new cross-country rail system.

Saying Goodbye!

When I was young, we had a river that was about 600 yards from the front door. It was a quiet, woodsy, and nearly perfect setting at that time. As children, we'd go there and see turtles by the hundreds lining the shores, sunning themselves on fallen trees, and on rocks. There were River Otters,Herons,Muskrats,Frogs,Shell Fish,Clams,Racoons,Beavers,Deer,Fox,Falcons,Crows, and Every other kind of bird imaginable. Fishing was fantastic. Lazy days on the river in a row boat or canoe, was a true summertime adventure for everyone who loved nature. It was an Eden. NOW, it is all gone. What changed, was that society had a new PARADIGM shift. What had been an old established farming areas,and they once were Indian lands themselves, began to shift to the shift of Automobile powered instant access from 25,35,55 miles away. Every one and their cousin, wanted to build along the riparian. Soon a freeway tore through town, and streched out it's tenicles in every cardinal direction. The noise and pollution began it's slowly growing throathold on the wildlife and the river eco system that supported it. We were given a NEW Metro airport in the late 60's and early 70's. Now it was more and more common to hear and see jet airliners coursing the skies above. All the while, we are being told we are progressing to a newer and more modern era. While at the same time, everything that had depended upon the river for it's habitat, began disappearing rapidly. Even the trees starting having problems, and began a die off that to this day continues. This is progress? Farm after farm, sold out to commerical development. Now nearly all the road side stands are a thing of the past. Buying local, is nearly out the question. We went from the old hand made world of pre industrial times, to the smoke stack industry, to the atomic age, to the world of instant communications and long distance travel, anytime we desired. It has been one paradigm shift after the other, and each of them a step back backwards for the globe. Some suspect that the bee die off may also be triggered by CELL PHONE towers and the invasion of millions of radio waves in the air. It could very well be responsible for bat die offs as well. This isn't progress, it is suicide. Our carbon footprints are killing the world we need. Everything is connected to the other. Have no doubt about that. Now, we are facing still more shifts, except this time, we will be refocusing on how it was done in the pre-industrial age, with a twist. We know petroleum based culture is now drawing to a close. Which is good. What we don't want as it's replacement, is something else that will continue to kill the planet. Like Nuclear anything! We don't know what to do with the spent fuel from reactors now. We certainly do not want billions of tons more of these deadly toxic by-products laying around in caves or other hidden places for hundreds of millions of years. I look forward to the quiet days of sails, windmills, horse drawn wagons and sleighs, electic railways and trolleys, candle light dinners, and living local off of what can be grown in a season. Home canning will make a come back. So will root cellars, drying, pickling. Eventually, even all our food stuffs will be cooked in and stored in crockery. Made locally of course. It is high time, that Humanity slows down,shuts up, hangs up collectively, works together locally to survive, and stops the maddness. I am glad saying good bye to air travel will be the first step of many, that will end the current Paradigm once and for all. I just hope it isn't to late for all of us, and every other living thing. I want to see all satellites eventually gone too. They are a nemesis to us all. I realize that the new era will not be a easy life for anyone. It will not be a fairy tale existance. It will be extreme and harsh by todays selfish standards. But, this is the bed we have made for ourselves. Now, we all must lay in it.

Zeppelins, no

Zeppelins and airships are terribly sloooow, even a train would be far quicker. Some trains are as fast as planes anyway.

Don't Count 'em Out Yet

"JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, April 9 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Sasol (JSE: SOL; NYSE: SSL), the world's leading producer of synthetic fuels from coal and natural gas, today announced that it has become the first company worldwide to receive international approval for its 100% synthetic jet fuel produced by its proprietary Coal to Liquids (CTL) process."

Practicing & Preaching

Regarding this blurb: "I fly to educate both general audiences and policy makers about fossil fuel depletion; in fact, I’m writing this article aboard a plane en route from Boston to San Francisco. I wince at my carbon footprint, but console myself with the hope that my message helps thousands of others to change their consumption patterns. This inner conflict is about to be resolved: the decline of affordable air travel is forcing me to rethink my work. I’m already starting to do much more by video teleconference, much less by jet." ...and note that while you're consoling yourself that your carbon footprint is justified, others are calling you a hypocrite.

Re: It's premature to call the death of the airline industry.

I also admit that the idea of family being spread all over the US and no way to see them in the future is scary. In fact, I live in Vancouver Wa, and work across the Columbia in Portland. My sisters and brothers live in 25 - 40 miles away in the same City. Already, the cost is getting so high that seeing them, even this close is getting hard. Frankly, I see the day coming soon where such a small distance will be an unfathomable casm, because it can't be practically breached on foot. The airline infrastructure is far to complicated (hence much energy input) to support with energy getting much higher. This means, that at any cost, wewill not be able to use them unless we are very wealthy. I would anticipate that even the wealthy will not be able to maintain the current infrastructure very long. What may happen is little courier type of prop planes will out last the major airlines, and eventually they too will fade into the distant past. All of this is sobering as you stated. Imagine how irritated others are going to be about all of this when it starts affecting the food supply, which it is already. How about when we can't afford food? Who are we going to blame? In summary, there is going to be a lot of frustration in this world, as things we relied on are swept out from under our feet at an ever increasing rate of speed. The author is only speaking what inevitably will happen, and you can see the birthing pains beginning right now. Let's not kill the messenger. He didn't create the mess that you and I are headed towards!

Won't be missed

I for one won't miss air travel. Do we really benefit from being shoved into can-like planes and floated around the world for purposes we think are important but, on reflection, are pretty unimportant really? I've coped with my husband going to conferences on the other side of the world for years, and he's coped with 40 hours of international travel each way each time - and for what? The real winners will be those who develop good quality teleconferencing tools, and alternatives to travel. As for tourism, there are many who are more familiar with cities on the other side of the world than what is available and wonderful in their own home town. All we need is a different perspective. I'm pleased and proud that my husband is now declining to attend conferences. We'll see more of him, and he'll be bringing fewer nasty bugs and colds back with him to infect the kids. Our family's carbon footprint will drop through the floor. Good for the planet and good for the people. The only people who will really mourn the passing of cheap airline travel will be the idiots and the people who took their money in the end. Ad maybe we can recycle all that scrap metal to build something worthwhile next time around.

Saying Goodbye to Air Travel

Incesay ostmay olksfay on'tday eakspay Igpay Atinlay, Iay illway itewray isthay inay Englishay. About two years ago I heard Richard speak in Willits, CA, a few miles from my home. I found his presentation fascinating and quite credible. Since many of our environmental problems are global, and of course the Grandmommy of them all, Global Warming, is quite global, we can't just do all we can locally and figure that is enough. Folks listen to scholarly types like Richard for good reason, he does his homework, he speaks well, and is quite informed of the various aspects about which he speaks. I have confidence in Richard to be a credible messenger and lecturer to inform people of the environmental catastrophes that are looming on the horizon and especially Global Warming. Having him go to Timbuktu to speak to people to convince them to change their ways quick, may not always be the best use of the last few hours of ancient sunlight in liquid form that are used up (and turned into more CO2) by him jetting there and back. But I trust him to use his carbon footprint judiciously. We Earthlings are all in this together, and it is going to take people all over the Earth becoming informed and caring about issues like global warming to turn things around in time. I have relatives in the airline industry, and I communicate with them often to encourage them find a greener line of work. They are aware that the handwriting on the wall is becoming more legible each week that the airline industry cannot long survive with such high fuel costs.

Who knows? London to Sydney 'in five hours' on new hydrogen jet
Posted Tue Feb 5, 2008 11:24pm AEDT
Updated Wed Feb 6, 2008 8:06am AEDT

Hypersonic: An artist's impression of the A2 jet (AFP: Adrian Mann/Reaction)
British engineers have unveiled plans for a hypersonic jet which could fly from Europe to Australia in less than five hours.
The A2 plane, designed by engineering company Reaction Engines based in Oxfordshire, southern England, could carry 300 passengers at a top speed of almost 6,400 kilometres per hour - five times the speed of sound.
The LAPCAT (Long-Term Advanced Propulsion Concepts and Technologies) project, backed by the European Space Agency, could see the plane operating within 25 years, the firm's boss Alan Bond told the Guardian daily.
"The A2 is designed to leave Brussels international airport, fly quietly and subsonically out into the north Atlantic at mach 0.9 before reaching mach 5 across the North Pole and heading over the Pacific to Australia," he said.
The plane, which at 143 metres long would be about twice the size of the biggest current jets, could fly non-stop for up to 20,000 kilometres.
It operates on liquid hydrogen, which is more ecologically friendly as it gives off water and nitrous oxide instead of carbon emissions.
Passengers would have to put up with having no windows, due to problems with heat produced at high speeds.
Instead, designers may put flat screen televisions where the windows would be, giving the impression of seeing outside.
Fares would be comparable with current first class tickets on standard flights.
The flight time from Brussels to Australia would be four hours and 40 minutes.
"It sounds incredible by today's standards but I don't see why future generations can't make day trips to Australasia," Mr Bond said.
"Our work shows that it is possible technically; now it's up to the world to decide if it wants it."

Sailing ships as an alternative

Jan Lundberg at Culture Change has been writing about sailing ships as a cheaper energy alternative to air or fossil-fueled ships. He has founded the Sail Transport Network to promote this alternative. In theory, sailing ships are fairly renewable in construction (assuming they are built of wood, and the sails and lines are made from organic material). And as any sailor will tell you with a big smile, the wind is free. Check out the Sail Transport Network.

the future of air travel? the future of humanity?

What is the significance of anything at all if humanity succeeds in triggering

runaway climate change?  We evolved over thousands of years with a, more

or less, predictable climactic weather pattern.  If we succeed in triggering

runaway methane emissions from the thawing arctic tundra our days as a viable

species have ended. We wont be flying anywhere anymore.                                         

Obviously, humanity does not understand the scope of the

problem or we would be having discussions like:

How can we raise food when it is 110 degrees F. year round?

or, Where are we going to find surface water when it has all evaporated?

All of what has concerned us in the past, and present, will essentially

become meaningless as an entirely new wave of climactic conditions

sweeps over the planet.  Yes, even the most delusional and grandiose

creature on the planet is eligible for extinction.

riding the bus

A few years ago I just decided to quit taking planes. There've been a couple exceptions, but I've made thorough acquaintance with Greyhound and Megabus. I've done a lot of reading and some writing, some hand sewing, and met people I wouldn't have met. The last plane trip was quite disappointing - no work time! And arrived exhausted with cricks in my back, to take a nap instead of playing with my grandchildren.

Listen: this is serious! The bus uses a LOT less fossil fuel than even a packed, fuel-efficient car. For those who can afford them, in the few places they go, I hear trains are more pleasant. For the rest of us, help develop the infrastructure - take the bus! You can learn to sleep sitting up. And you won't ever fall asleep at the wheel.

The more we are, the better the buses will be. I am considering a long walk - from Minneapolis to Atlanta - to find out just how hard it is to get between my two sets of grandchildren. Of course, bicycling would be faster - but those hills!

Ships are a better way to travel

It is true that sailing by ship is better than by plain. I personally do not like to fly because it scares me. If people started to sail instead of fly, it would be better all around. I think cruises are an even better way to travel because they are a lot of fun. I went on the Royal Caribbean not too long ago and had a blast. It didn't scare me like planes usually do.