Aviation’s version of ‘The Elders’ look to define and promote the benefits of air travel, but overlook the elephant in the departure lounge

30 September, 2019

There is a shadowy organisation known as ‘The Elders’ which was originally brought together in 2007 by Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel as an international non-governmental body of public figures such as elder statesmen, peace activists, and human rights advocates. The current batch of 11 is weighted in favour of Latin America and Africa.

They see themselves as independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights, using their almost 1,000+ years of collective experience to work on solutions for seemingly insurmountable problems such as climate change, HIV/AIDS, and poverty, as well as to use their “political independence” to help resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts. Or they might be interfering geriatric busybodies, depending on how you look at it.

It may surprise some to learn that the aviation industry has a comparable organisation. It consists not of retired elders but staff of organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the industry’s global rule maker and watchdog; the International Air Transport Association (IATA) representing most of the airlines; Airports Council International (ACI) on behalf of the airports; the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO), the global ‘voice’ of air traffic management; and the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA) which oversees the aircraft manufacturers and suppliers.

The organisation is known as the 'Industry High Level Group', and on 25-Sep-2019 it launched the second edition of its Aviation Benefits Report outlining the socio-economic benefits of air transport, as well as the industry's challenges and objectives.

Key priorities underscored in the report include the need to “mainstream” (i.e. put at the forefront) air transport sector development objectives in states' national economic development planning, so that air connectivity can be optimised as an economic development driver for travel, tourism, and trade.

It does offer useful and pertinent facts. According to the report, air transport has a USD2.7 trillion global GDP impact across international and domestic flights, creating 65.5 million jobs. It reiterates that air travel is set to double over the next 20 years.

Probably for that reason it majors on infrastructure, calling on all parties “to promote diversified funding and financing sources for infrastructure development and modernisation”. This is a clear reference to the public versus private airport ownership and development debate which has dramatically re-emerged, mainly at the behest of IATA, just as, paradoxically, there is a slump in privatisation activity.

It also focuses on international connectivity which, it says, expands the ability of local communities and businesses to access foreign supplies and markets, enhances opportunities for cultural and social exchange, and its important contributions to emergency and humanitarian response capabilities.

It gives a particular example of humanitarian response, highlighting the Sunda Strait Tsunami in late 2018, which “illustrates how the Airlink rapid response humanitarian relief organisation worked with airlines and other non-profit organisations to provide transportation for response personnel and material aid to the disaster survivors including the delivery of clean water to 500 people, solar lights to 10,000, and hot meals to more than 100,000 people in need across 19 villages and 10 schools in Banten.”

Unfortunately it does not really get to grips with the most pressing problem facing the industry in 2019, that of the environment. What it does is to call on air transport stakeholders to reinforce their efforts toward minimising the environmental effects from civil aviation activities, including through the attainment of the sector's current aspirational goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020.

It also draws attentions to the integrated measures the aviation community has agreed to through ICAO to “address” aircraft noise and engine emissions, embracing technological and operational improvements, the increased development and accelerated deployment of sustainable aviation fuels, and effective and transparent global emissions offsetting through ICAO’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

But with respect that misses the point. These environmental observations have been made for years. They have all fallen on stony ground. It seems to be lost on these elders that the young are very quickly turning against aviation and that they were supposed to be the next generation of travellers, the ones that were going to “double air travel over the next 20 years”.

Once they are gone they might never return. Like it or not we are all going to be driving around in shared electric cars within a few years; either that or we’ll be on a bike or on foot. Ditto aviation. It will need to advance production of electric aircraft, and woe betide if the electricity that powers the aircraft results in any way from “unacceptable” sources such as fossil fuel or nuclear power stations.

You would think that this ‘High Level Group’ would include a co-opted member from, say, the UN Environment Programme. But it doesn’t even include representation from TIACA, the International Air Cargo Association, Nor IAPA, the International Air Passengers Association - and they want air travel to flourish, not die. Never mind an Elder or two, and after all they are at least committed to combating ‘climate change’.