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If We are Serious about Fighting Climate Change, We should not Bail-out the Airlines

The COVID-19 outbreak has crippled the US airline industry. A precipitous decline in travel demand has forced carriers to cut flights by 40 percent. A temporary national shutdown of air travel may be the only way for the aviation industry to stop hemorraghing money.

In the grandest of (American) corporate traditions, the airlines are now lobbying the federal government for money, a “bail-out” to put it bluntly.

With Democrats and Republicans apparently nearing a deal on the Coronavirus stimulus package, it looks like the airlines’ request will be granted (an exact amount has not been specified yet).

The airlines’ collapse has taken a tremendous economic toll across the country. At Philadelphia International Airport, more than 1,000 workers have been laid off since last Wednesday. A total shutdown would put as many as 750,000 airline employees out of work.

And yet, helping aviation workers is not the same as helping airlines.

Its not just that airlines have squandered the last decade’s profits on stock buybacks and executive bonuses (rather than improving worker pay). Airlines have a hefty carbon footprint.

Air travel is by far the most polluting means of transport. According to the BBC, a short-haul flight emits 154 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometer, triple the emissions per passenger traveling in a four-person vehicle. Collectively, commercial aviation accounted for 2.4% of global carbon emissions in 2018, more than the sixth-heaviest polluting nation, Germany.

Almost one-quarter of global aviation emissions came from flights originating in the United States (two-thirds of which came from domestic flights).

The Democratic draft bill circulating in the House would require airlines to reduce Carbon emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050–and have the government buy out old, less fuel-efficient jets–as a precondition for $50 billion aid.

Yet with much of the planet having burned the last few years (and countries obligated to limit temperature increases under the Paris Climate Accord), even this target seems to modest.

The airline industry’s failure provides a once-in-a-life-time to go big for the planet. Emulating Greta Thunberg, we can take radical steps to support airline industry workers while phasing out jet-fueled aviation technology once and for all.

The federal government can do this through the following steps:

  1. Let the airlines collapse. The government could potentially buy up the aircraft.
  2. Provide a separate stimulus package for airline industry workers (could also carry over to cruise industry) by paying pre-layoff monthly wages, up to $60-75K per year.
  3. Invest stimulus money in development of a National High-Speed Rail Network.
  4. Also invest in research into sustainable aviation technology (e.g. electric aircraft) and long-distance maritime travel (e.g. hydrofoils).
  5. Give airline workers priority in hiring for new high-speed rail or sustainable long-distance air/sea travel services.
Navy Hydrofoil or Hovercraft. Hydrofoils “float” above the water, reducing drag and increasing speeds relative to conventional boats.

When the economy recovers, companies might regroup, or the government could (if it bought up aircraft) establish its own airline. But an interconnected high-speed rail network would reduce air travel demand on short-haul domestic routes, where air travel is the least carbon efficient. Airlines would be compelled to focus on long-haul international routes, whose higher fuel costs would increase the incentive to develop sustainable technology.