Thursday, 9 October 2014

Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age

One of the more disruptive consequences of peak oil is likely to be peak air travel.

What does peak air travel mean? Why is it likely? Why haven’t you already heard more about it? And what business and investment opportunities does this coming disruption create?

I’ve been writing about the unsustainability of air travel for more than 20 years, and I’m pleased that this year it’s on the SXSW Eco conference agenda.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear from the start: I am not here to tell you that you shouldn’t fly.

Some people do make that argument, and it’s a legitimate question, but that’s not what I’m saying.

[A few years ago, as part of a year-long trip around the world, I flew to Australia, rented a car, and drove to Uluru. Will a trip like this be possible in the future? How will it be different? How much more will it cost? How much more time will it take? What means of of transport will it use?]

I came to Austin by plane, and I think very few people who can afford to fly will choose to fly significantly less for reasons of ethics or sustainability.

People like me who travel by air should pay more than we do: our decision-making is distorted by the fact that air travel is artificially cheap. Air transport is, and always has been, more heavily subsidized than almost any other mode of transport, in many non-obvious ways. I would support much higher taxes on my own air travel, and the elimination of the current subsidies.

But flying is too attractive for voluntary reductions to have much effect. If we want people to fly less, we’re going to have to persuade them through their pocketbook by making flying more expensive.

My point today is that — ethics aside — peak oil is likely to make air travel much more expensive, both in absolute terms and relative to the cost of surface transportation.

Air transport is different from surface transport in two key respects: (1) Airplanes can’t be connected to the grid, and (2) keeping them up in the air requires a fuel with an energy density that batteries or other alternatives can’t provide, and aren’t likely to be able to provide. For air travel as we know it, there is no substitute for liquid fuel — as the aviation industry itself freely admits.

Fuel is already a higher percentage of the cost of air transport than of the cost of most modes of surface transport, making airline ticket prices more sensitive to fuel costs than surface transit prices.

Fracking seems to have postponed peak oil for a few years. But when peak oil’s day of reckoning arrives, some of its earliest and most severe impacts on end-user prices are likely to be on air travel.

Obviously, the aviation industry doesn’t want to talk about its impending contraction, since that would not only scare off investors but could cause governments to cut back their current aviation subsidies.

In addition, higher costs for air travel are as much of a threat to the so-called “ecotourism” industry as to the aviation industry. Definitions of “ecotourism” have excluded transportation to and from the destination, so that a resort or a tour can be certified as “green” even if all the guests are flying in from thousands of miles away, and even if air travel is the largest component of the carbon footprint of the tour or visit. Many “ecotourism” businesses and destinations are almost entirely dependent on airborne guests. That creates pressure on those who support fair trade, community development, and wildlife and ecosystem conservation funded by “ecotourism” to also support continued cheap air travel. As a result, many of those who are regarded as ecotourism experts and spokespeople have been part of the conspiracy of silence with the aviation industry about the environmental impact of airborne tourism.

What’s harder to understand is why private investors have drunk the propaganda Kool-aid that airlines and aircraft manufacturers have cooked up about a future of “sustainable” infinite growth in air travel.

We heard some of this in yesterday’s keynote here at SXSW Eco 2014, in which the top Boeing executive for “sustainability” showed us, not a graph of air traffic leveling off at some sustainable level, but a growth curve accelerating upward off the chart into the future at an increasing rate of growth.

It’s hard to imagine any other industry putting forward that kind of projection at a conference like this, or expecting to get away with calling it “sustainable”. But this is exactly the sort of taken-for-granted exceptionalism that has characterized aviation, and government policy towards aviation, from its earliest years. The Chicago Convention international treaty has been interpreted as exempting fuel for international airline flights from taxes. The USA is vigorously opposing inclusion of airlines in the European Union emissions trading scheme. And there are no global controls or caps or taxes on aviation emissions.

The aviation industry has succeeded in separating aviation from the rest of the discussion of climate change at the United Nations, and has gotten global policy on aircraft emissions moved to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a sector-specific revolving-door UN agency largely if not entirely captured by aviation industry interests. Any action on climate change by ICAO has been indefinitely postponed, despite vigorous but little-reported protests from the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, the one environmental group (and virtually the only civil society organization of any sort) with an observer seat at ICAO.

As we heard in yesterday’s keynote here at SXSW Eco 2014, the aviation industry’s claim is that sometime, years or more likely decades in the future, airlines and aircraft manufacturers hope to replace fossil fuel with biofuels. “We hope to find a way to clean up our own act, someday,” aviation industry spokespeople say, “So in the meantime we should continue to be exempt from the climate change and fossil fuel conservation regimes you are putting in place for all other industries.”

But how realistic is the prospect for “sustainable” biofuels, on which the aviation industry has staked its hopes?

With enough resource inputs, organic chemistry can turn almost any feedstock into any other organic compound. But to meet the needs of aviation, sustainably, biofuels must be:

  1. A high energy density drop-in liquid replacement for kerosene;
  2. Produced in quantities many times those of current jet fuel extraction and refining (to support air traffic many times present volumes, as the industry projects, driven largely by growth in air travel and air cargo transport in China and other developing countries);
  3. At prices comparable to current kerosene prices;
  4. Without contributing more to climate change — through energy inputs and the production and refining process — than it saves compared to fossil fuel;
  5. Without diverting land, water, or human labor from food production (i.e. burning food for jet fuel); and
  6. Available at full scale soon, before we run out of oil or pass the climate change tipping point.

That’s a tall order. It might turn out to be possible, but I don’t think it’s likely.

I’m not sure how many people in the aviation industry really believe it’s likely that biofuels will meet all these challenges. Perhaps the best public indication of what industry insiders really think is contained in their reports to those to whom they are accountable: their stockholders. I know of no airline or aircraft manufacturer that bases its financial projections on biofuel rather than fossil fuel costs. Either they think that biofuel prices will somehow magically end up exactly equal to fossil fuel prices, or — more likely — they have no real expectation that biofuels will constitute any meaningful fraction of the fuel used by airliners in any financially foreseeable future.

Would I bet on aviation biofuels myself? At most, it’s the sort of highly speculative investment on which I would risk a small portion of the capital I could afford to lose, if I were a venture capitalist who could afford to invest in many such high-risk ventures in the hope that the one winner that pays out, pays out big enough to cover the losses on the majority of losers.

But by planning for continued cheap air transport, unsuspecting investors and business people in seemingly unrelated industries that depend on air travel have staked their fortunes, often without realizing it, on a risky bet on future production of large quantities of cheap, sustainable biofuels for aviation — when the more conservative strategy would be to plan and prepare for the greater likelihood that air travel will, in fact, get much more expensive.

If peak oil is coming, and it’s likely to bring a dramatic increase in the cost of air travel, what does this imply?

We’ve incorporated expectations of the ability to get anywhere at the speed of a jet plane into all aspects of our lives and businesses. Going back to the pre-aviation transport era, or forward to a new post-aviation era, will be disruptive in many ways, both direct and indirect. The scope and scale of that disruption is the scope and scale of business and investment opportunities it will create.

Some people will get rich (or richer than they are now) by anticipating and investing in a future of greatly reduced air travel, and the changes it will require. Some people will get poor (or poorer than they are now) by failing to do so.

The degree of disruption resulting from reduced affordability of air travel varies with distance, with the greatest disruption coming in travel over the longest distances where the least attention is now being paid to alternatives to airplanes.

Within continental regions, the obvious alternative to air travel is high-speed rail.

Most discussion of high-speed rail focuses on “regional” or “corridor” routes where high-speed rail travel can be as fast as flying. On these routes, the mode of travel will change, but little else needs to, and there will be minimal disruption to businesses not directly involved in transportation.

There will be much larger disruptions as a result of changes in longer-distance travel, where high-speed rail will not be able to match the speed of air travel but where less is being done to put any high-speed rail infrastructure in place all. There are no current transcontinental plans or route projections in even the most ambitious visions for high-speed rail in North America.

In the 19th century, civic fortunes were made and lost by being on or off the main rail lines. The fewer people who can afford to fly, the more that will be true once again. But who today is thinking about, lobbying for, or investing in, whether the first transcontinental high-speed rail line will go through Chicago or through, say, Dallas? The answer to that question will mean billions of dollars to someone.

There are also questions about whether even shorter-distance high-speed rail lines will go to (or through) city centers or, other regional or metropolitan transit hubs.

Many current and projected European high-speed rail lines go directly to airports, bypassing city centers (and avoiding the need to find rights-of-way through already built-up downtowns). Richard Gilbert and Anthony Peel, the Canadian urban planners who wrote the most detailed exploration of what transport would look like in a post-peak oil world, suggest that as air traffic declines, many airports in North America will be repurposed, in part, as high-speed rail terminals and intermodal transport hubs, since they already tend to have regional transit service as good as, sometimes better than, city centers. Decommissioned or scaled-back airports will present other major redevelopment and investment opportunities comparable to those that have been presented by closures of urban military bases such as the Presidio of San Francisco.

There’s a foreshadowing of the renewed political and economic battles over rail routing decisions in the ongoing fiasco of California high-speed rail. But that debate has been dominated by NIMBY opposition more than by competition to attract rail service. The more unaffordable air travel becomes, the more proximity to a high-speed rail station will be seen as a civic advantage, rather than a burden. Already, there are examples such as Lille, France, where welcoming high-speed rail lines through the city into a new downtown station has been the cornerstone of a profitable municipal renewal.

For so-called “road warriors” who today are primarily denizens of the airways rather than the roads, transcontinental train travel may be unimaginable. But provided that a comprehensive transcontinental high-speed rail network is put in place in time, it won’t necessarily be as disruptive to patterns of either business or leisure travel as one might think.

Seventy-five years ago, competing railroads spared no effort to get the travel time between New York and Chicago down to 16 hours, but made little effort to achieve marginal improvements beyond that. Why? You could put in a full day in Manhattan or downtown Chicago on Monday, board a train after work, and be at work first thing Tuesday morning in the other city. If necessary, you could do it again Tuesday night, and be at work again, back in your home city, on Wednesday. Provided they can sleep in a comfortable bed en route, most people actually prefer an overnight train or bus to a daytime trip.

What can we expect for transcontinental high-speed rail travel times? The only long-distance high-speed rail lines in the world today are in China. The longest of these is from Beijing to Urumchi (East Turkestan), covering a distance comparable that from Chicago to San Francisco in 30 hours. At that pace, a transcontinental train could be operated across the USA in 40 hours, or two nights and one day en route. Once again, that’s not as bad as it sounds. You could spend all day Monday in Los Angeles or San Francisco, be on the East Coast Wednesday morning for a full day of business, and be back on the West Coast again by the start of the business day on Friday. You’d spend a full day (and two nights) in each direction on the train. But you’d probably have better working conditions (and certainly better sleeping conditions) on a train than even in first class on a plane.

There would still be some secondary societal and business disruptions. It would be harder to balance business travel with home and family life (as was the case for business travellers before the jet age), and railroad warriors travelling nationally would likely have fewer choices of where to base themselves, and substantially more pressure to travel from midcontinent rather than coastal locations.

The real disruptions, however, will come on with decreasing affordability of intercontinental air travel. A return to transoceanic passenger shipping doesn’t mean the end of transoceanic travel. As recently as the late 1950’s, even in an era of extensive international business and leisure travel, more people crossed the Atlantic by ship than plane. But travel by ship will mean a return to different patterns of intercontinental travel, and/or the emergence of new ones.

Because of regulatory inducements (variations in labor laws and minimum wages between the countries where most cruise passengers are from and the countries of their flags of convenience), there’s a substantial fleet of cruise ships that could be repurposed fairly quickly for transoceanic transportation, although they weren’t designed and aren’t optimal for that use. More and better ships will be needed. What will they be like? When, where, and by whom will they be designed and built?

Where will people coming from inland cities or the opposite coast transfer from a train to a ship? It used to be that travelers from the Eastern USA would take ship for Asia in San Francisco, or perhaps Seattle, and that travelers from the West would embark for Europe in New York or maybe Boston. But in the future, the need for speed may drive the development of different gateway ports.

A decade ago, for example, container shippers began focusing on how to get goods from China to markets in the Midwest and on the East Coast more quickly than by sending them to Long Beach, Oakland, or even Vancouver. They didn’t have to look very hard at a map of major North American railways to see that there’s a port two to three days closer by ship to Asia than any other port on the North American rail network: Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

The logic of the geography is compelling. The container port at Prince Rupert opened less than a decade ago, but it’s grown rapidly. There are already plans on the drawing board to expand it by another order of magnitude into one of largest container ports on the West Coast. In the future, I expect that travelers in a hurry to get between New York and Tokyo or Shanghai will transfer from trains to ships in Prince Rupert. But nobody is yet investing either in passenger transit facilities in Prince Rupert, or in upgrading the rail line to Prince Rupert for high-speed passenger service.

Similarly, I would expect most people travelling between North America and Europe to cut the journey time by taking a train at least as far as Boston, which is already served by high-speed rail, rather than New York. Were I a gambler or an investor, though, I’d bet that the main European passenger shipping gateway (and for that reason the high-speed rail terminus) will more likely be Halifax, Nova Scotia, a day by ship closer to Europe.

If it takes a week or more at sea to get to Europe or Asia, and another week or more to get home, both business and leisure travelers will tend to take less frequent and more extended trips, and to group together visits to multiple destinations while they are on the other side of the ocean. Slower, longer duration trips tend to be different in other ways as well. When they aren’t in as much of a hurry, for example, travellers feel less need to book tours in advance, and can travel more independently (which often means more responsibly).

People who have become accustomed to being able to travel to the ends of the earth, and who now need longer vacations in order to do so, may finally start to create the political pressure to enact legal mandates for vacations in the USA such as those that already exist in most European countries. That could make is easier for travellers to use slower means of transport, or to justify higher air travel costs by amortizing them over longer trips.

Destinations and travel businesses that currently depend on airborne visitors would need to find closer sources of visitors, reorganize to serve longer-term visitors, reinvent their economies — or suffer the consequences, particularly if they fail to start to plan and prepare for the changes they are likely to need to make. Hawaii, for example, is likely to become more of a retirement destination, and perhaps a base for business people who need to be positioned for travel both to the American mainland and to Asia, and much less of a short-term holiday destination.

Some places will be winners and some will be losers. Russia has the only direct or electrified rail line across all of Asia, but the trans-Siberian Railway is still a slow freight line with no plans for upgrading to high-speed passenger service. China is likely to benefit greatly from its central location and substantial first-mover advantage in the continental Asian high-speed rail network. India is likely to become substantially more geographically peripheral and isolated, because of the difficulty of connecting India to the Asian rail network north of the Himalayas, or to Europe.

There are currently no through rail lines, much less high-speed lines, across the length or width of either Africa or South America. Higher prices for air travel will render those regions even more marginal to the rest of the world, unless rail links are put in place — soon. The need for passenger rail transport, and China’s ability to provide both technology and financing for it, is likely to accelerate China’s influence in those regions.

Countries with economic monocultures that are dependent on airborne tourism, and that don’t plan and prepare for increased air travel costs, are taking a hugely risky gamble with their economic futures. The sooner the changes start, the less painful they will be.

If you think that travel can have a positive impact — on global consciousness and tolerance for diversity, on environmental awareness, on community development, on wildlife conservation — and if you want yourself and your children and grandchildren to continue to be able to travel the world, you should take the lead in raising these issues, figuring out what a more sustainable and less air travel dependent ecology and economy of travel might be like, and getting the necessary infrastructure and policies in place to enable that — before the oil runs out and the era of air travel ends.

[This article is a slightly extended version of a talk I gave at SXSW Eco, Austin, TX, USA, 7 October 2014.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Thursday, 9 October 2014, 21:42 ( 9:42 PM)

I agree, but your time for Halifax vs. Boston is much too long. Portsmouth to Yarmouth ferry is 11hr at sea. Boston to Halifax is a little further, but well under 24 hrs. The more interesting question will be which port has more convenient land side connections, customs, etc. That will be a bigger factor.

Posted by: rjh, 14 October 2014, 16:01 ( 4:01 PM)

"Boeing investing in UAE effort as detractors warn of 'peak travel'" (by Greg Harman, The Guardian, 8 October 2014):

"There were skeptics in the audience and in subsequent panels. One audience member suggested that airplane emissions are more damaging due to the altitude at which they are released, a notion supported in the scientific literature.

"But perhaps the most vociferous critic was travel writer Edward Hasbrouck, author of 'The Practical Nomad,' who presented on the idea of 'peak air travel' Tuesday.

"While Hasbrouck doesn't expect most people will voluntarily fly less because of climate concerns, he does expect peak oil to price air travel out of reach of most....

"The time has come, he said Tuesday, to begin considering where alternative modes of travel can expand...

"The aviation industry"s suggestion that biofuels will rescue it from the rising costs of petroleum and the carbon-emissions problem was equivalent to greenwashing, he said."

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 28 October 2014, 07:59 ( 7:59 AM)

Perhaps other creative approaches will be tried. I can imagine, if bunker oil starts becoming too expensive, some return to sail (or at least auxiliary sail) vessels. Not square riggers -- they were too labor intensive -- but modern, light, computer-controlled vessels making extensive use of wind power (including for electrical generation). On land the use of buses, particularly the large comfortable ones, could also become much more common. This form of intercity travel has to lose its "lower class" image, but it's quite possible when it becomes the only reasonably affordable alternative for people of middle income.

Posted by: Richard, 28 October 2014, 08:26 ( 8:26 AM)

@Richard - Most of the discussion I have seen about possible use of wind power for ships has focused on cargo shipping, for which lower speeds are likely to be a more acceptable trade-off for lower fuel costs than for passenger ships.

I think that busses can and will gain travel mode-share, but I expect that this will be more for short to medium distances (displacing travel by private car) rather than for longer distances displacing air travel. For longer distances, trains make more sense, and can be faster and more comfortable, than busses.

Gilbert and Peel's book, "Transport Revolutuions" (see the link in my article above) identifies electrification of high-traffic bus routes, mainly within urban areas, as offering some of the highest potential return on investment in reduction of fossil-fuel usage. "Trolleybusses" are common in San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver (all cities which have historically had access to cheap hydroelectricity to power them) but little-used elsewhere. Stringing wires is much, much cheaper than laying rails. And trolleybusses last much longer, with much less maintenance, than diesel busses.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 28 October 2014, 10:48 (10:48 AM)

"Sustainacast" one-hour podcast with Mick Dunn on the same topic of "Peak Travel" (29 October 2014):

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 30 October 2014, 21:37 ( 9:37 PM)

WTM (World Travel Mart) Responsible Tourism Day opening keynote 2015: Kevin Anderson on "The Ostrich or the Phoenix?"

Kevin Anderson:

WTM 2015 follow-up session: "Carbon Debate -- is the Travel and Tourism Industry doing enough to address Climate Change?"

Discusssion at

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 10 November 2015, 07:48 ( 7:48 AM)
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