Up in the air: the future of flying

Saturday 13 October, 14:0015:30, Cinema 2Future thinking


For many of us, one of the positives of modern living is our ability to fly. As an island nation, air travel is essential – and is growing at a faster rate than ever before. It is no longer just the wealthy who are able to take city breaks in Europe or gap years in the Far East – flying is available to almost everyone. What is more, 80 per cent of the country’s visitors arrive by air and we rely on air freight for many goods we buy and export, and even the food on our tables. Aviation creates a practical, globalised world, forging relationships between nations for work, leisure and trade. It’s no wonder that any restrictions on our mobility – whether by Brexit, volcanic ash or those seemingly perennial strikes – are always met with dismay. But are we being complacent, assuming that aviation opportunities will simply carry on growing? Are we taking flying for granted?

There are a range of challenges. Environmental campaigners have long complained about carbon emissions and air pollution. But there are also those who raise concerns about the challenges of the structure of UK airspace, which, while evolving, sometimes struggles to keep pace with ever growing traffic levels in the sky. A record-breaking 8,800 flights were recorded leaving or entering UK airspace on one single day in 2017, a record that was then surpassed in May 2018. UK air traffic reached 2.5million flights last year and is predicted to grow to 3.1million by 2030. As a result, the Department for Transport predicted congestion in the skies will create a 50-fold increase in delays in the next decade or so.

While new arrangements are being made at ground level, such as the government approving a third runway at Heathrow and other airports planning to grow, we also need to address congestion in the skies. After all, the aircraft criss-crossing our skies are flying over our houses every day – and every night – and create serious noise and pollution challenges to communities close to airports or under busy flight paths. Modern jets are certainly quieter and cleaner than the aircraft flying 40 years ago. Nonetheless, many people will worry about the future value of their homes if they have a new ‘M1 of the sky’ overhead.

What is more, if the futuristic transport entrepreneurs have their way, the space above our heads could become even more congested. Coming over the horizon, they prophesise, are helicar taxis, floating cargo-vehicles, hypersonic jets, hovertrains, fleets of delivery quadcopters, private space travel and much more.

Are we in for a battle over flight paths in the same way that roads protesters stopped the construction of terrestrial highways in the 1990s? Can reinventing airspace avoid the delays suffered by other national priorities like nuclear power stations or high-speed rail? In the end, who chooses – and who can challenge – where these roads in the sky should go? Is opposition to the proliferation of flying machines a valuable battle against congestion, noise and the visual pollution of our airspace? Or is it simply a contemporary manifestation of NIMBYism? Who should own the skies?