A friend this morning flew to Europe for the weekend. OK, the flight was to one of those airports which is not quite where it sounds, but it didn’t matter to her, she wanted to go to a neighbouring country anyway. The return fare of €35 was less than the cost of taxi to the airport, and certainly less than the cost of a meal out at many Dublin restaurants. A pair of tickets for the flights would have cost the same price as one ticket to see Ireland play rugby against Australia or South Africa.
Whatever the economics and ethics of low cost flying, it will take a considerable change to wean us off it. A friend in the North, a train enthusiast, recently flew from Belfast to Cork for a meeting because it was the cheapest option, and took him a fraction of the time. He regretted having to admit that letting the train take the strain was fine if you could afford the fares and had days to spare.
The Green response to the trend for people to fly with increasing frequency is to say that it must stop; they propose heavy carbon taxes to inhibit such activity. But what would be the outcome of their policies?
My friend in the North, a self-employed man looking for business opportunities could not have made that meeting and would have missed out on the work; such flexible travel would only be available to those who could afford it, the big players in the market, the big companies. The policy of taxing air travel beyond the pocket of ordinary people means that they are the ones who lose out. Business becomes concentrated in the hands of those who can afford to be mobile.
And what about that flight to Frankfurt (which doesn’t really go to Frankfurt)? It’s to visit a family member; something that would be discouraged by Green policies. Taxation would ensure only the rich could contemplate going to visit relatives working overseas.
The inescapable fact of indirect taxation, whether it’s VAT, customs and excise duties, or so-called ‘carbon taxes’, is that it is regressive; it takes no account of ability to pay so bears down most heavily on the poorer members of the community.
Cynics might observe that taxes introduced for allegedly ‘ethical’ reasons become very useful sources of incomes for profligate Governments. The huge taxation of cigarettes has not significantly reduced the number of smokers, but has brought billions into the Department of Finance. ‘Carbon taxes’ will probably follow a similar course, kept just low enough not to kill off the business while high enough to keep cash coming into the coffers. If there were a desire to stop flying completely, then there would be quotas on the numbers of flights (and rationing always favours those who have cash in their pockets), rather than small, but significant, duties on each ticket.
A focus on reducing carbon emissions, while trying to avoid hurting the less wealthy, needs to be concentrated not upon taxes, but upon ensuring the efficiency of aircraft and airports. But that would be too much for a philosophy based upon prescribing the lifestyles of others.