Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Rising Fuel Prices Spell the End of Flying

by Bill Totten

Nihonkai Shimbun and Osaka Nichinichi Shimbun

(September 15 2005)

[I've written a weekly column for two Japanese newspapers for the past three years. Patrick Heaton prepared this English version from the Japanese original.]

My secretary has been having a heck of a time arranging my schedule. After announcing I would no longer board airplanes, it has become impossible for me to conclude my business trips to Hokkaido and parts of Kyushu without riding the sleeper train, which is more difficult to book than other trains.

No Longer Riding Airplanes

The reason I refuse to fly is because I'm aware that the airlines in Japan have a difficult time avoiding near misses with American military aircraft flying in Japanese skies. US pilots, who are protected under Article Six of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States, have no obligation to obey Japan's air laws. As a result, Japan's civilian airlines must fly in such a way as to avoid collisions with US military aircraft.

It has been over a year since a US military helicopter crashed into Okinawa International University in Ginowan City. For the Okinawans it is no solution just to avoid riding airplanes themselves for they must also put up with the daily noise pollution caused by US aircraft, in addition to being exposed to risks from US aircraft crashes.

Recently, the increasing dangers involved in flying the world's skies have been brought home by a number of spectacular accidents. On August 14th, a Cyprus-registered Helios Airways aircraft crashed, killing all 121 people aboard. Flying at a height of 10,000 meters in which temperatures were fifty degrees below zero, the heating system on the aircraft failed. The bodies retrieved from the plane after the crash indicated that they had been frozen before the plane went down. A few days after the Helios Airways crash, a Columbia-registered West Caribbean Airways chartered plane crashed in Venezuela because of engine trouble. Everyone on board that plane died. On August 12th, a plane registered with Japan Airlines affiliate JAL-Ways experienced an engine blowout and fire shortly after taking off from Fukuoka airport, showering hundreds of metal fragments over Fukuoka's Higashi ward, some landing on residences and elementary schools. The engine that exploded was twenty-five years old. Miraculously, no one was killed in the incident, although several elementary and junior high school students reported receiving injuries from falling engine fragments.

Flying is an Uneconomical Means of Transport

Besides the danger of crashes, there is the fact that flying is an uneconomical means of transport. Travel by airplane (or automobile) costs four times more per passenger-kilometer than travel by bus and twelve times more than travel by rail.

In August, employees of British Airways went on strike in support of the in-flight food service workers who had been laid off recently. One of the employees' union of Northwest Airlines, including maintenance and ground crew workers, also went on strike in protest of that company's plans to cut personnel. I think these events are directly connected with the rash of recent airline accidents. The connection underlying all these problems in the airline industry, I believe, is the dramatic rise of fuel prices, the largest expense of the industry.

Airline transport of people and freight became widespread from the second half of the twentieth century. This was made possible by the availability of plentiful, cheap fuel derived from oil that cost less than two dollars per barrel. Additionally, without massive underwriting by the government, there would not have been such remarkable advances in aircraft technology or in the growth of the airline industry in general. Now that oil is running at over sixty dollars a barrel and becoming a rarer commodity, air transport is no longer economic.

An Unprofitable Industry

Are there any airlines left that are still making money? Put another way, are there any airlines left that are able to cover their costs without government assistance? As far as I know, there aren't any. What can be done to salvage an unprofitable industry? The answer to this question is obvious from examples of privatization of the railroad, where priority on profits has led to reluctance to invest in safety. The only solution left is cost-cutting. Airlines fly their aircraft repeatedly and for longer periods of time. They cut corners on maintenance and safety processes, fly with less fuel and spend less on personnel training to deal with rising oil prices. This is what is leading to an increase in the number of accidents.

There is no doubt that many industries are affected by rising oil prices caused by peak oil. But the airline industry is most conspicuously affected because the impact takes the form of deadly accidents. Because so many people now are dependent on this industry, the airlines will probably not disappear overnight. Instead, they will continue cutting costs as much as they can, in the process making air travel more dangerous than ever. If the Japanese government and media do not honestly inform citizens of the dangers inherent in an industry that continues routinely to use outdated equipment, and, for the purpose of cutting costs, neglects to invest in maintenance and training, more people's lives will be at stake.

In 2003, the ultra-speed passenger aircraft, Concord, developed jointly by England and France, ended operations. A Mach 2 high-speed cruiser that began regular service in 1976, the Concord could no longer be flown because twenty-five years of use meant the aircraft was increasingly dangerous and thus no longer economic. The Concord was the first company to go out of business because of the oil bubble. If crude oil prices continue to rise, we can expect other airlines to meet the same fate.

Bill Totten


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