Friday, January 05, 2007

Arriving on a jet plane

Now, I don't really like Michael O'Leary, the abrasive boss of Ryanair, but I'm going to have to defend his airline against some silly accusations of "irresponsible capitalism". These come from the environment minister, Ian Pearson, who says Ryanair are ignoring the threat of climate change and should do more to address the issue (I won't say pot, kettle, black, but you might already be thinking it).

The way I see it, the whole area of "green" issues is about efficient management of resources. We only have so much oil, coal, trees and rabbits available at any time, so we've got to make the most of them. Now, Ryanair makes massive profits on a low-cost model precisely because it manages its resources more efficiently than all the other airlines. Why punish a successful private company? It is cutting costs and finding savings which reduce CO2 emissions per head, rather than increasing them, and over the next few years will continue to reduce margins and be even leaner.

Furthermore, the new level of airline passenger duty actually means the cost of the flight in CO2 is paid by the passenger in tax. What more should the passenger do?

Companies can be compared to engines - they have inputs and outputs. Some are finely tuned, frugal models, others guzzle gas like there's no tomorrow. Ryanair, like Dell, Amazon or Tesco - the market leaders in their respective fields - is the former. These firms (like them or hate them) are at the top because they have reduced waste to a minimum and squeeze every drop out of the dollars they put in. Ryanair is brilliant at what it does. If all companies, not to mention the public sector, ran their ships as tightly as O'Leary runs his, we'd probably hit our emission reduction targets with room to spare.

In the aviation sector, the state-subsidised European and US airlines (how many are receiving Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection?) are the real bad guys. If any of them starts to feel the pinch, the government just bails them out. British Airways doesn't get the same level of direct financial support, but is helped by having preferential slots at Heathrow, which it guards jealously.

Here are some of Ryanair's good points, as I see them:

  • Full planes whenever possible, even if that means a £10 flight - no shipping air around Europe for free.
  • No wasteful extra services (food, magazines etc) which add to the weight of the plane and produce extra carbon emissions. They even charge for baggage: again reducing the vital take-off weight of the aircraft.
  • They fly to less busy airports, so their planes don't get stuck in holding patterns belching out more fumes.
  • They offer direct services to lesser known destinations, meaning less road traffic and fewer connecting flights. Meaning lower emissions.
  • They fly modern efficient planes, which burn less kerosene. Airlines want to cut costs at every turn. Fuel is a major outlay, so they manage their consumption to reduce it as much as possible. Did the old state monopoly do that? The rise of easyJet and Ryanair has forced BA and co to change their game too.

Some things the Government should look at before having a go at Ryanair:
  • Pointless air travel by ministers. Why fly to Paris, Brussels etc when Eurostar is as quick and much greener?
  • Do MPs fly with Ryanair? I suspect not. It would reduce taxpayer expenses if they did.
  • There's no attempt to connect airports with population centres properly. Trains to airports are very expensive and quite slow. Buses are even worse. Investment in these services would reduce road pollution (CO2!), congestion and accidents.
  • Why is anyone flying on business anyway, when videoconferencing is so cheap and easy? If Ian Pearson's on Skype (I'll bet he isn't) I'll discuss it with him myself. If the Goverment invested in or encouraged proper (100mb?) broadband technology, people could work from home, or at least their local office, thus reducing need for travel.
  • The rail system in Britain is absurdly expensive. Why do people fly from London to Manchester? Because the train costs £200. The Government should insist on simpler pricing structures, with lower top end fares.
  • In Britain, planning rules still do not insist all houses are insulated properly (to, say, Scandinavian standards). It's great heating the loft space or the air just above the roof, isn't it?
  • There should be bigger tax breaks, or bigger loans, for micro power generation (solar panels, home wind turbines etc). Many people would like to get involved in this, but can't because of cost.
  • There's a farcical approach to renewable/low-carbon energy generation. There are lots of windmills in my part of the world and no complaints about them. People who can prevent a wind farm being built because they don't like the sub-station should be politely told to shut up and piss off.

Planes (and cars, Ken) are easy targets for politicians when it comes to emissions, because of the vapour trails they leave behind, but the truth is they don't contribute a great deal to the overall CO2 output. Deforestation causes much more damage, as do power stations and even cow's arses. Ryanair is a model of efficiency, and should be copied by the government, not chided. Why not insist on better emissions standards/fuel efficiency rules for new cars across Europe? Stricter than California, say? Or better planning rules? Or nuclear plants, not coal-fired ones.

Travel should be made easier for everyone, not more difficult. That is preserve of totalitarian regimes who want to keep a tight reign on the citizenry (I'm thinking USSR, Cuba, China here). Humans should be free to roam the planet, to discover places and meet new people. A Ryanair flight is one of the better ways to do that, whether Ian Pearson likes it or not.

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