Ditch the ‘global race’ nonsense. Airport expansion is desirable in its own right

The economic debate about airport expansion has become a proxy war, fought by both sides with proxy arguments. When somebody tells you that they are for/against airport expansion because of X, and you happen to disagree, don’t waste any time trying to debunk argument X. There’s a good chance that X is not really the reason why that person stands where they stand. X may be the most socially acceptable argument for/against airport expansion, but it is not necessarily the pivotal argument.

The most oft-cited argument against airport expansion is that it would undermine decarbonisation. Yet it is intriguing how many papers and articles that start with an environmental case against air travel casually morph into an aesthetic critique of mass tourism, which is denounced as tacky and vulgar.

A paper in the 21st Century Society journal bemoans a ‘consumer mentality characterised by a desire for instant gratification, and hypermobility in the form of leisure travel’, created by ‘a potent mix of hyperconsumption […] and postmodern ennui.’ What seems to upset the authors particularly is ‘the tendency for what might be termed “trophy tourism” where the tourist simply “ticks off” destinations to add to his de-contextualised, passionless collection.’

A paper in the Annals of Tourism Research claims that ‘excessive tourist air travel, or binge flying, may constitute a new site of behavioural addiction’, because ‘tourist experiences also supply many of the psychological benefits that Griffiths (1996) uses to characterise sites of potential behavioural addiction. These include feelings of escape, heightened experiences of pleasure and excitement (a “buzz” or “rush”), relaxation, disinhibition of behaviour and the activity as an arena for identity work.’ Again, the author’s main beef is that tourism is often about ‘only visiting a destination for a couple of days before adding it to one’s mental list, with length or depth of experience unimportant.’

And a paper in The Sociological Review contends: ‘There are many ways in which the body is commodified in and through it moving about and being moved about, through what might be described in the late 20th century as ”binge mobility”.’ The author laments the decline of domestic ‘places of working-class mass pleasure’ (i.e. seaside resorts like Blackpool), because in those places ‘pleasure was highly regulated through the co-presence of one’s family and to some degree one’s neighbourhood.’ This lost idyll is then contrasted to today’s international tourism centres, where ‘there is only pleasure, no guilt; norms of behaviour are unregulated by family or neighbourhood; there are liminal modes of consumption; bodies are subject to commodification.’

It would be wrong to insinuate that these authors use climate change as an excuse for banning a behaviour they disapprove of. The above are selective quotes from papers that mostly evolve around climate change. But it is fair to say that the authors don’t think about air travel limitations in terms of a difficult trade-off between two conflicting, desirable aims. Rather, they see it as an occasion to kill two birds with one stone. It is doubtful whether the authors would significantly change their position in the event that (carbon-free) mass teleportation was invented tomorrow.

Supporters of airport expansion also use proxy arguments, but for an entirely different reason. They use them because they have allowed their opponents to set the terms of the debate. They no longer dare to stand up for tourism, but prefer to hide behind lame phrases out of the ‘global race’ scrapbook. We need airport expansion, they argue, because it is ‘good for the economy’, because it is necessary to secure business connections with emerging markets, and because airlines would move to Frankfurt and Paris otherwise.

Thus, air travel is only defended as long as it is not a consumer good, but an input in a production function. Unsurprisingly, on this basis, opponents of air travel find it easy to pick holes in these arguments. They point out, correctly, that business travel is not such a large part of the total, and that it may be increasingly replaced by video conferences. ‘The great majority [of flights abroad] are used for holidays’, points out George Monbiot, knowing full well that his opponents will not dare to challenge his insinuation that ‘holidays’ is a synonym for ‘useless and wasteful purposes’.

Why have supporters of air travel conceded the moral high ground to the modern-day heirs of the Duke of Wellington, who opposed railway travel on the grounds that it would ‘only encourage the lower classes to move about needlessly’? Why is air travel only defensible when it is a means to something else, but not in its own right?

The pro-progress camp should abandon proxy warfare, and start engaging in open combat with the Malthusian miserabilists. There is only one good reason for airport expansion: People want to fly. People enjoy travelling abroad. That is a good enough reason on its own, and on this basis, supporters should make an unapologetic case for more air travel through greater airport capacity.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

1 thought on “Ditch the ‘global race’ nonsense. Airport expansion is desirable in its own right”

  1. Posted 29/08/2013 at 17:20 | Permalink

    Although it is quite possible to agree (to an extent) with the sociological researchers but still support airport expansion etc. If that’s how people wish to behave, it’s not my place to stop them, it’s my place to make money out of them!

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