The True Cost of Flying
By Julio Godoy
Hundreds of flights by subsidized airlines in Europe are endangering the global climate and the ozone layer. For now, they fly free of environmental regulations.
PARIS, (Tierramérica).- The European boom in ''low-cost'' airlines, fueled by tax incentives, is increasing the level of toxic gases in the atmosphere and displacing less polluting and more efficient means of transportation for shorter distances, like trains.
Gisela B. is a passionate environmentalist. On the roof of her house in the northern German city of Bremen she has installed solar panels to generate electricity, she doesn't own a car, and she saves water and energy in any way she can.
But when it comes to travel outside Germany, even though she is aware of the serious impacts of air transport on the climate, she doesn't hesitate to use one of the airlines that offer international flights at prices as low as one dollar.
These airlines -- referred to as ''low-cost'' but which have devastating environmental costs -- have proliferated in recent years in the United States and Europe, despite the decline in air travel resulting from international terrorism incidents, such as the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.
In Germany alone there are more than 10 commercial airlines that offer flights between the country's major cities and to tourist destinations like the French Riviera or Spain's Majorca and Costa del Sol at ridiculously low prices.
For a weekend on the French Mediterranean coast, for example, Gisela can fly from Berlin, Cologne or Frankfurt, on any one of at least 10 airlines, for less than 20 dollars round trip.
''I shouldn't fly because of the environmental effects of the aircraft,'' Gisela B. admitted in a conversation with Tierramérica. ''But I can't fight the temptation of such low prices.''
European airlines, like Easyjet, Ryanair and Germanwings, can afford the low airfares because of generous subsidies from national governments, which do not tax jet fuel, the only tax-free fuel in the world. In addition, commercial aviation does not have to pay the value-added tax that is applied to all other commercial transactions.
The local governments, meanwhile, exempt the ''low-cost'' airlines from other taxes in order to attract them to their smaller airports, which fell into disuse after the military presence declined with the end of the Cold War.
This policy has paved the way for the modernization of tiny airports in cities like Frankfurt-Hahn, Dortmund, Lübeck, Cologne and Zweibruecken, in Germany; in Strasburg, Bergerac, Montpellier and Carcassone, in France; and several locations in Britain.
Meanwhile, the airlines also have reduced their costs with Internet-based reservation systems, using just one type of aircraft (for easier maintenance), and minimal on-board staff.
In the opinion of Werner Reh, an expert with the German Friends of the Earth organization BUND, this policy ''is completely absurd.''
''The local governments apply their subsidies in a chaotic way and they compete with each other to obtain the low-cost airlines,'' Reh told Tierramérica.
Several of these companies have not survived, meaning that the local governments' investment goes to waste in airports that end up abandoned, he said.
Furthermore, train travel, a viable alternative for trips within Europe, is suffering as a result of this form of ''disloyal competition'', in which the airlines are selling services below cost.
Despite the scientific evidence on the harmful environmental effects of air traffic, the European governments have failed to draw up a rational policy on the matter.
The burning of jet fuel -- a petroleum product -- releases greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and the process of climate change. Air traffic worldwide produces emissions of more than 600 million tons of carbon dioxide -- the leading greenhouse gas -- each year.
In addition, it releases nitrates, ash, sulfates and water vapor. Some of these substances deplete ozone in the atmosphere -- this layer of ozone gas is crucial for protecting life on Earth from the Sun's harmful rays.
The Britain-based environmental group Tourism Concern predicts that by 2015 half of the annual destruction of the ozone layer will be caused by commercial air traffic.
The Royal British Commission on Environmental Pollution estimated in 2002 that commercial airline emissions are ''a major contributor to global warming,'' and urged governments to draft policies to encourage train travel instead.
Tom Blundell, a biochemistry professor at the University of Cambridge and president of the commission, said he regrets that the only international instrument for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol (which takes effect in February 2005), ''does not include emissions from international aviation.''
''This continues to be a very sensitive issue,'' a source from the Paris-based OzonAction Unit of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), told Tierramérica.
''It is very difficult to introduce the problem of commercial aviation emissions into international treaties,'' such as the Montreal Protocol, which establishes protections for the ozone layer, said the source.
''The governments are at the mercy of the (aeronautics) industry lobby,'' according to Mónica Legge, transport expert with the German group Robin Wood, based in Hamburg.
''The advertising suggests that we can all fly around the world almost free and without problems. But it is time that we face the consequences and take action: we must reduce aviation,'' she said in a Tierramérica interview.
But even the environmentally conscious Gisela B. has not heard the message. She recently reserved a round-trip flight to Santo Domingo -- for just a handful of dollars.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.