TOPIC GUIDE: Cheap Flights

"The expansion of air travel is a good thing"

PUBLISHED: 01 Jan 2009

AUTHOR: Alex Hochuli

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In December 2008 activists from Plane Stupid invaded Stansted airport runway in a protest against aviation’s contribution to climate change. The demonstration follows in a line of similar actions [Ref: Guardian], and coincided with important decisions on whether to develop further the UK’s civil aviation infrastructure. The government approved the building of a third runway (and sixth terminal) at Heathrow in January, following the opening of a fifth terminal there in summer 2008 and the go-ahead being given for expansion at Stansted in October 2008. All these developments have faced opposition both by local residents objecting to the disruption and by environmental campaigners focusing on the wider impact of carbon emissions.  Protestors have seized on ‘cheap flights’ as a particular problem, citing the ‘unnecessary’ nature of short-haul budget flights and their possible substitution with other, less carbon-intensive forms of transport. There has, however, been a backlash against critics of cheap flights, with renewed arguments for the economic and social benefits of cheap air travel. The economic necessity to the UK of expanding its aviation infrastructure has been argued for, particularly in the heated debate over the expansion of Heathrow and other airports. Others have detected snobbery in anti-flying arguments, as well as moral posturing and hypocrisy, with people bemoaning the effects of cheap travel while continuing to take full advantage of its many benefits.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are ‘cheap’ flights?
Airline deregulation across the EU allowed for the importation of a new business model pioneered in the United States - that of the ‘no frills’ carrier. Cheaper fares offered by budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair have led to the expansion of air travel across Europe, both in terms of new destinations opened up and the number of flights and passengers. While the better-off remain the biggest users of air travel [Ref: Times Online], there has been a real democratisation of flying, with travel abroad now affordable to many working-class families. It has also led to increasingly hyper-mobile migration and work abroad. Advocates point to the historic nature of this transformation and the freedom of movement and new experiences it has provided millions of people.

What is the debate over infrastructure?
The Government has based its arguments for a third runway at Heathrow on the economic benefits it would provide in terms of jobs and revenue, resulting from Heathrow’s position as a major hub and competitor to airports such as Schiphol (Amsterdam) and Charles De Gaulle (Paris). It is argued that London’s position as a global city is at stake. However there is a debate amongst those generally favourable to expansion about whether Heathrow would be the best place for a new runway, with some proposing a new airport in the Thames estuary [Ref: Evening Standard] and others questioning the future of the hub-and-spoke model. The Conservative party, amongst others, has argued that the UK should instead invest in high-speed rail links as an economically and environmentally more sound alternative [Ref: 2M Group]. While a third runway might run afoul of EU pollution regulation, investment in rail would be a step towards overcoming the underdevelopment of that sector relative to European neighbours. Critics meanwhile have remarked on the overwhelming lack of ambition in the UK’s transport policy as a whole [Ref: Times Online], arguing that environmental ‘sweeteners’ tacked-on to development only serve to slow down transport.

What is the environmental impact of air travel?
Local residents’ opposition to airport expansion has been joined up with concern over flying’s planetary impact. Environmentalists argue flying is the fastest growing cause of climate change [Ref: European Commission] and point to the government’s contradictory policy of developing air transport infrastructure while committing to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. In addition to the question of airport expansion, many argue for a punitive tax on each seat sold to discourage travel. Aviation, they claim, is under-taxed compared to other modes of transport, with no VAT imposed on jet fuel, and the Government recently backtracked on a proposed change [Ref: GreenAir Online]. Industry retorts that budget airlines are more efficient than other carriers, and that when all levies and tolls are factored in, the average plane ticket is already highly taxed. Furthermore, aviation only accounts for three percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with planes also becoming more environmentally-friendly, so penalising flying would involve much sacrifice for little impact.

Should we fly less?
Historically, increased mobility was a mark of social progress and travel was seen to ‘broaden the mind’. Now many people see flying as ‘unnecessary’ and even damaging: be it people flying to second homes or drunken stag and hen nights abroad. But who is to decide what is ‘unnecessary’? The moralisation of flying – some even comparing to it child abuse [Ref:] – has led critics to argue that demands to restrict flight are based on prejudice against the freedom that cheap flights have afforded people, and that air travel should be celebrated [Ref: spiked]. But others argue that flying is now a moral issue that we can ill afford to ignore.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Why we shut Stansted airport

Plane Stupid 9 December 2008

Flying lessons

Charlemagne The Economist 17 July 2008


Runway 3 will be a shrine to Labour’s congenital frailty

Martin Kettle Guardian 16 January 2009

Lily savaged

Lily Kember Guardian Comment is free 10 December 2008

Air traffic out of control

George Monbiot Guardian 9 May 2007


Class hatred at Stansted airport

Brendan O’Neill spiked 9 December 2008

The menace of cheap travel

Mark Khazar Battles in Print 1 October 2006

Hot air? I want the cold facts

Anatole Kaletsky, Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Micheal O'Leary The Times 10 June 2006

Stop this war on tourism

Keith Jowett and Roger Wiltshire Guardian 3 March 2006


A transport policy running on empty

Leader The Times 14 December 2008

The right side of the argument

The Economist 6 November 2008

Save the planet, don’t see the world?

David Soskin Battles in Print 2 October 2006

Fly the frugal skies

Matt Welch Reason 1 January 2005


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Timeline: Environmental protests against aviation industry

Haroon Siddique Guardian 8 December 2008

Open skies, open minds?

ESRC Society Today

Aviation and Climate Change

European Commission


Sustainable Development Commission

Air transport

Office of National Statistics


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Go-ahead for new Heathrow runway

BBC News 15 January 2009

London’s airports hit by passenger fall

Evening Standard 14 January 2009

Heathrow train plan to allay environmental fears

The Sunday Times 4 January 2009

Stansted protest cancels flights

BBC News 8 December 2008

Decision on third runway delayed

BBC News 4 December 2008

BAA agrees to Heathrow watchdog

BBC Radio 4, Today programme 26 November 2008

Stansted expansion goes ahead

Guardian 9 October 2008

Air passenger transport up by 5% in 2006

News Release Eurostat 14 December 2007

Cheap flights across the pond?

BusinessWeek 13 April 2007

Air tax hike ‘would hit poorest’

BBC News 7 August 2006

It’s a sin to fly, says church

The Sunday Times 23 July 2006

Euro MPs push for air fuel taxes

BBC News 4 July 2006

Rich snap up cheap flights

The Times 4 November 2004


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