Fifty years ago, airplane travel was a luxury only the wealthy could afford. Indeed, my father recalls trips to the Belfast airport when he was a lad in the late 1950s, not to meet relatives or friends flying in, but to watch the planes come and go — it was an enjoyable family day out.
For a generation such as mine, on a plane at just six months old, we want to spend as little time as possible in an airport. Watching the planes is a mere diversion between security checks and whiling away the time at the boarding gate. But with oil prices that are going anywhere but down, the age of the cheap flight could be over and flying may again be a privilege confined to the well heeled.
This is a shame as over the last 30 years hundreds of millions of people have been able to fly more affordably, see the world, and contribute to one of the world’s economic staples: tourism.
Some 230 million people worldwide rely on tourism revenues, and although the benefits of tourism can be debated, particularly on the environmental and social level, peoples’ livelihoods and billions of dollars are nonetheless at stake. Furthermore, billions of people have not been able to step on a plane yet alone experience the cultural, natural and man-made wonders of this world.
With oil prices rising 42% in six months, airlines are in trouble. Fuel now represents 40% of airlines’ expenses, with the average airline spending $299 per passenger round trip on fuel alone, compared to $70 in 2000 and $151 last year.
Of further concern to the sector is that, according to analysts, a 3% rise in the price of oil over a day is enough to write off a year’s profits. Airlines are consequently bumping up prices (27 times in the US last year), charging for baggage, and cutting schedules and destinations.
Such price spikes and associated inflationary pressures have had an immediate impact on international tourism, which was pegged at 898 million international tourist arrivals in 2007 by the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. The latest International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) figures show that global traffic growth in March 2008 was down to below 4%.
The IATA, which represents 93% of the global airline industry, found the biggest falls in passenger traffic were for airlines in the Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Growth in the Asia-Pacific dropped to 4.3%, the Middle East’s growth slowed from last year’s 20.4% to 15.4%, while African traffic contracted 4.3%.
The downturn could not have come at a worse time for the industry, which has just managed to claw back into the black for the first time since 9/11, with profits of $5.6 billion in 2007.
This year’s figures prompted IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani to say at a conference in Istanbul that the industry had taken “a major turn for the worse,” predicting growth for 2007 at 3.9%, down from 7.4% last year, and estimating losses for the sector at $6.1 billion if oil remained at $135 a barrel.
“Astronomical oil prices are hitting hard and the buffer of an expanding economy has disappeared,” Bisignani explained.
The surging cost of oil is indeed worrisome, and especially, one presumes, for the investors putting up the capital for the billions of dollars in tourism developments and new airports; in the GCC alone, tourism and airport developments are worth an estimated $272 billion and $43 billion respectively.
Without affordable tickets, people will fly less and those that do may have fewer tourist dollars to spare. Such prospects should force governments to take a hard look in the mirror about the long-term viability of such tourist and air transport related projects, as well as basing economic strategies around what can be an unpredictable money earner.
If oil keeps rising, what we’re likely to see instead is a return to national and regional tourism as the medium- to long-haul flight dependent tourists disappear from view. The Middle East, bolstered by Gulf money, will be able to support a large local tourist industry, and arguably be able to subsidize national carriers with cheap fuel. Indeed, Virgin Galactic announced last month they plan to open a spaceport in the UAE for flights to space. Then again, at $200,000 a ticket to do some space tourism, that really is a luxury.
But just as the lucky few in the very near future will be gazing down at the earth while everyone else has to watch space shuttles taking off, so might that majority have to resort to watching planes at the airport, reminiscing about the golden age of cheap air travel. For now, it’s an opportune time to fly as much as possible before you need a bank loan for an airfare that used to cost less than a month’s rent.
PAUL COCHRANE is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.