Those of us who work in the aviation industry tend to think something along the lines of “everyone is flying these days”. Because of this perception, criticism linked to environmental issues that portrays aviation as a “luxury” is not well received. Still, as the rise of low-cost airlines around the world has sharpened an already competitive industry, the result has been lower ticket prices and a growth in the number of flights around the world. With this perspective in mind, it is not unreasonable to think that a vast majority of people in the world are now regularly coming onto an aircraft as passengers. The question is if this insider view of the aviation industry, or the one of aviation as a luxury for few, is the one more representative of the reality. This is probably a topic more suited for a thesis than a blogpost, but perhaps even a limited investigation can reveal something about which perspective that is closer to how things really are.
Starting with the question of who is flying, starting with the country with the largest aviation industry seems relevant, i.e. the US. In 2019 41% of the population had never flown, while another 28% fly once a year. That leaves 31% as regular or frequent fliers (Statista, 2019). In the UK, another country with a large aviation industry, the numbers for 2017 were 12% for those who never fly, with another 11% in the “very rarely” category, 9% in “rarely” and 30% in “occasionally”, leaving 38% as frequent fliers (Statista, 2017). Similar numbers for other countries were more difficult to find but as another example the total number of passengers flying to, from and within India in 2019 was 167 million (World bank, n.d). Even wrongly assuming that all those passengers were Indian, it would still represent a small fraction of its population. Looking at the number passengers carried for other countries in the same way gives the same picture, especially for developing countries. Adding to that some statistics on travel frequency per income and for the big picture there is not much more to reveal; it is true that even in developed countries where many fly, the majority do not fly often and those who do are in higher income brackets. For developing countries, flying remains a luxury for the few.
However, it is at the same time true that there has been an incredible increase of flying in recent decades; from less than half a billion passengers per year in 1970 to 4.4 billion in 2019 (World bank, n.d). This has had a dramatic effect for people around the world, even for those who only fly rarely. To focus only on one example, consider remittances, which is money sent as support from people working in another country back to family or other dependents in their home country. One specific example is the remittances from sent from Filipino workers overseas to their home country, which from grew from 103 million USD in 1975 to 10.7 billion in 2005 (BLES, 2006). The top countries in the world for remittances measured in total amount of money sent home are India, China, Mexico, Philippines, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Ukraine. Among the countries who depend most on remittances are Haiti, Nepal, Gambia, Moldova and Honduras. For these countries remittances represent around 20-30% of GDP, i.e. critical for the economy. This is money that makes a big difference in the lives of people who really need this support. According to the UN (link), remittances are three times more important than international aid and growing. Half of that money goes straight to rural areas, where the world’s poorest live. The UN states that this money “is key in helping millions out of poverty” and help in achieving at least seven of the 17 goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (among them: no poverty, zero hunger, good health and well-being, quality education and clean water and sanitation). It would be a better world where people did not have to leave their families to support them, but in the world we live in this is the reality for many and without aviation it is difficult to see how this flow of income would be possible.
Which of the two perspectives on the aviation industry could we say is closer to reality – “everyone is flying” or “aviation is a luxury”? As so often, the more accurate picture is probably somewhere in between these two extremes. It is true that in most countries, the majority of the population fly rarely or not at all. It is however also true that there has been a dramatic increase of how many who flies in recent decades and that this has provided many benefits to many people. Many of those new passengers, even if they fly rarely, are working in other countries and improving the lives of many more. To what extent this more nuanced picture can influence views on the aviation industry is difficult to say, since one part of the picture can of course be much more emphasised than the other in support of whatever view someone had already. It should be possible to find agreement on that the aviation industry provides an essential service in a globalised world, as well as on that the current contribution to the environment from the industry needs to be swiftly and significantly reduced. Such an agreement would mean that we all can focus on how to get to a cleaner aviation industry, rather than on the current disagreements.