Accidental Activist

Down to Earth: Rethinking Air Travel

If we leave it up to the politicians, excessive, unnecessary, environmentally unsustainable air travel will be here to stay.

By Ben Bull
Published September 09, 2007

A few articles and a series of personal experiences have had me looking towards the skies recently. No, I'm not harping on about high-rises again. I'm thinking instead about one of the more contentious, and impressive, innovations of our time: airplanes.

Last week was the Toronto air show and I was lucky enough to find myself sitting on a beach on Ward's Island just as three F-something fighter jets were streaking in perfect symmetry across the unmistakable Toronto sky.

As they ducked behind the Tower and broke formation in perfect time I knew it was an image I'd never forget.

The next day I heard the roar again so I scrambled for my bike and pedaled like a giddy kid toward the noise, craning my neck as I raced along Queens Quay en route to the CNE and a better view.

What a view it was - it was fantastic.

But, for some strange reason, when I opened my newspaper the next day, there was a ripple of rebuff: "Ban the air show" opined the Star's Joe Fiorito in atypically un-fun fashion, "It is a waste of fuel...a dim and dangerous spectacle."

The next day's letter writers seemed to mostly concur. "It's like living in a war zone," complained Frances Sedgwick. "The noise, pollution and safety concerns warrant a stop to this now... It's time to start a campaign to stop the air show."

Very strange, I thought - What happened to our sense of fun?! Planes are cool!

I remember sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet at an event in England. I must've been about 4. I have a great picture somewhere of me wearing a ridiculously oversized helmet and giving an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the camera.

"I want to be a pilot," I told my parents all the way home.

When I lived in Hamilton I took my then-five year old, Jack, to see the Hamilton air show (before it was cancelled). I remember how he listened, enthralled, as an RAF pilot explained the intricacies of the cockpit controls on one of the cargo planes they had on display.

"Any questions?" he asked. when he'd run through the dials, to the 15 or so of us huddled onto the flight deck.

Jack's little hand went up: "The plane goes up," he explained, staring at his hand which was motioning a graceful take off and weaving through the 'sky', "and then - Crash!" he concluded, plummeting his 'plane' to the ground.

"Well, er yes, sometimes that does happen," replied the bemused Captain after an awkward few seconds of silence.

"Airplanes are dangerous," declared Jack on the drive home. "I don't want to be a pilot."

Perhaps our attitudes are changing. If the claims of the Heathrow campers – "in the UK, aviation alone is going to account for 134 per cent of allowable emissions by 2050" – are anything to go by, they certainly should be.

But, whatever the activist or enlightened citizens take, our politicians, as usual, don't appear to be in synch. The Heathrow expansion - a third runway is needed to accommodate an anticipated extra 325,000 passengers - is evidently undeterred and recent Star headlines have re-ignited the possibility of a Pickering airport being built to accommodate the projected growth of air travelers in the GTA - 60 million of us by 2030 apparently.

I must admit I'm a little conflicted by all of this. I've traveled by plane a lot for business and pleasure over the years and the thought of giving it up for the sake of the environment is all very noble but not easily doable if I want to hold down my job and see my extended family again any time soon.

Perhaps I won't have to make the decision. This spring I succumbed to the lure of convenience and hopped a flight from Toronto's Island airport. Five minutes into the air and my eardrum was threatening to explode. Same story – only worse - on the way down. I took the train home and haven't flown since.

Being grounded has at least enabled me to appreciate the utterly atrocious level of train service we have in this country. My two 27 hour journeys - from Toronto to Halifax, NS, and back - failed to arrive at either end. The outbound leg was abandoned somewhere in New Brunswick because of an overheated wheel bearing – "this happens all the time," chuckled the Snack Bar VIA guy as he gave me a free cup of coffee - the return one apparently foiled by a CN derailment ("we're always getting screwed by CN").

All of which makes me wonder about what will happen to air travel. For one thing, if we really think about this mode of transport, surely we are bound to ask ourselves: How many trips do we really need to take? Would it kill us to vacation closer to home a littler bit more often? And - come on, how many of those business trips are absolutely essential?

And what about all those poxy short-hauls? In this technological era is it really beyond our capabilities to set up some high speed rail links between the likes of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Chicago and New York?

I have a feeling that if we leave it up to the politicians, excessive, unnecessary, environmentally unsustainable air travel will be here to stay. But if we choose to do something about it, perhaps we can find a better way.

Air travel is not currently factored into any of the Kyoto emissions targets, or any of the unofficial emissions targets proposed by the current Conservative government.

It's high time we started treating air travel seriously. It's time we came back down to earth.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By Frank (registered) | Posted September 13, 2007 at 11:36:48

Hey Ben, I love the air show and now that pilots are being allowed to fly with corrective lenses, I might get my license and go for top gun ;) I don't think the problem is that there is air travel, the problem is that the majority of airplanes travelling nowadays are build in the late to mid 70s with little or no regard to emission control. Perhaps retrofitting fleets with newer engines would be a great start.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted September 13, 2007 at 12:48:00

Agreed... But how much would better fuel consumption buy us in the scheme of things? The funamental problem - as I see it - is similar to that of car usage and energy conservation in general. Our demand and usage is increasing so dramatically that we are heading for a huge impact when the oil runs dry. In the time it takes us to get there I think it's unlikely any improved fuel efficiencies will even out the effects on our environment.

Given the fact that any post-oil 'new' energy sources will not be able replace the versitility and low cost of oil we are going to have to face the need to reduce our airplane use in the same way we need to conserve energy at home and on the roads.

Eliminating air travel is about as likely as eliminating the car, but we need to stop thinking in terms of expansion and start thinking instead about conservation.



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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted September 14, 2007 at 23:08:41

Air freight is the candidate for the chopping block, not so much passenger aircraft.

MOdern jets are actually not bad for fuel economy, check out this article:

There is concern about where the emissions are released, jets being worse for climate considerations apparently.

Big difference between modern passenger planes and the cargo jets at Munro. listen to the difference in engine noise between westjet 737-700s and the typical cargo jet, which is old and worth maybe 5% of the new Boeing. Huge. Aircraft engineers are bright guys. Truck engineers on the other hand...

Also, if you can get a low angle view, the brown exhaust trail from cargo jets on take off is not present on new passenger jets.

Interesting story from an ex-pilot, pre 2001 Canada 3000 had the most modern fleet around, all new planes that were so much more fuel efficient than the old ones that is was cheaper for them to lease these $100M new planes with lower operating costs than to buy $5M old ones.

Good idea, until the planes are no longer full. Then you have a cash flow problem, that's why they went under.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted September 19, 2007 at 14:35:56

Hey Ben, I think that the fuel economy on the larger, newer jets far better than the older ones, in fact, so much better that if, seat for seat, all airliners were replaced with brand new jets there'd be considerable amounts of fuel savings as well as much lower emissions. Ted, I actually talked one of our truckers here regarding exhaust fumes. I'm not sure what the government checks on trucks but one driver here has a smoke issue and his emissions are actually better than the drivers who don't.
As far as oil dependance goes and cutting out airplanes, I don't think you're thinking. Unless you plan on cycling to the Bahamas for your honeymoon...or just staying at home. (yawn) Airplanes are by far the most economical way to transport a large number of passengers for large distances...until teleporting is perfected. (I can't wait for that) no more driving, instantaneous travel over long distances) I could wake up and be at work in 10 mins! LOL.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted September 19, 2007 at 15:01:23

I found this link had some intersesting graphics regarding fuel efficiency on

Did a bit of research and here are the numbers I came up with: Boeing 747-400 - 4.5L/100km/passenger Airbus A380 - 3.0L/100km/passenger

Still better than any car I know of...

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