Was 2019 the year of “peak plane”?

There are various factors with the potential to cut flight numbers, of which Covid-19 is only one

March 31, 2020
A plane comes in to land at Heathrow. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images
A plane comes in to land at Heathrow. Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

Could we soon be looking back at 2019 as the year in which the world reached “peak plane”? The year when air travel reached its zenith? The suggestion might seem absurd. Yes, Covid-19 will give the airlines a short, sharp shock, but in the long term no one sees anything but growth. In 2016, for example, the International Air Transport Association predicted that the number of airline passengers per year would double by 2035 to 7.2bn.

But before dismissing the idea that peak plane might already have come, remember that for years it was widely believed that as the world got richer, car use would see an inexorable rise. In fact, some have crunched the data and concluded that we have already reached peak car, maybe as long ago as 2012.

The predictions of air travel growth are based on extrapolations of what has happened to date on the assumption that nothing fundamental is going to change. But I think we have reason to believe that more than one fundamental has changed. If so, past performance may not be indicative of future results.

Two of these shifts predate the current crisis. First, we seem to be reaching a tipping point in environmental awareness. The term flygskam (flight shaming) only came into usage in 2017 and it has quickly caught on. There may be very few people who have given up flying altogether but many are cutting down. The days of leaping onto planes at the drop of a hat, as we did during the peak of the budget airlines boom, are numbered, if not over. Businesses and other organisations are also beginning to question their use of air travel, and as they do they are often concluding it is time-consuming and very cost ineffective.

Even if most citizens don’t walk their green talk, the increased seriousness with which environmental issues are taken is impacting on policies that directly affect the growth of air travel. Heathrow’s new runway for now looks stalled, while plans to expand Bristol airport were also scuppered. Appeals might yet see these decisions reversed but they chime with increased public unwillingness to see air traffic increased.

Another factor is cultural. Flying used to be seen as glamorous, exciting, aspirational. Now that almost everyone can do it, airports are just one hassle after another, and your meal is either plain underwhelming or not provided at all, it is increasingly being viewed as a necessary evil. The green shift only reinforces this: it is hard to be romantic about something that we know is helping to toast the planet.

Attitudes to cars provide a precedent for this. For years, driving was also glamorous, exciting and aspirational. The car represented freedom and adventure, mythologised by the road trip many dreamed of but few actually took. Now its associations are largely negative: crippling costs, potential accidents, inevitable traffic jams and, again, environmental damage. Little wonder that since 1992/4, when 48 per cent of 17-20 year olds and 75 per cent of 21-29 year olds held a driving licence, the numbers have headed south so that by 2014 they were 29 per cent and 63 per cent respectively, compared to 74 per cent of the population as a whole.

Covid-19 adds two further factors to this mix. Business travel account for up t0 75 per cent of airlines’ profits. Coronavirus has grounded these cash cows and forced them to try other means of communication. This is very likely to make everyone more aware of when it really would have been better to go in person and when it is much quicker, easier and cheaper to make a conference call. The very fact that people will have been intensively using stay-at-home tools like Zoom for weeks will normalise them. So even if most business trips resume, as long as a sizeable proportion do not, we’ll see a drop in business travel.

The short-term effects of the global pandemic might buy more time for all these deeper changes in attitudes and practices to bed in. Some airlines will go bust, capacity will drop, cash-strapped businesses will rein in their spending and at least some potential tourists will be scared off going abroad for a while. Normally, we’d expect all these factors to wear off over time. But by the time they do the broader attitudinal changes may have become established.

When considering the plausibility of peak plane, it’s worth noting two pieces of data. First, in 2009 we saw negative growth in air travel as a result of the previous year’s financial crisis. This shows that economic factors alone can buck the long-term trend. Second, annual growth had been at around 6-8 per cent per year but had already slowed to around 4 per cent for 2019, with 2020 predicted (pre-Covid-19) to be similar.

I’m not so bold or foolish to predict that we have actually reached peak plane. But it seems clear that negative growth is inevitable in the short term and more likely in the long run than you might think.