By Tahir Latif *
As this is written, in summer 2023, bringing critical elements of the economy into public ownership remains a hot topic. The energy system, water, the rail network, Royal Mail – in all cases, public ownership is an incredibly popular policy option for voters of all political parties – though now conspicuously absent from the policies of all political parties. Arguments for bringing these services into the public sector include avoidance of corrupt practices by profiteers, restoring services to the levels the public needs and deserves, and curbing and managing the impact of climate change.
One industry much more rarely discussed in these terms is aviation. I can see why flying doesn’t have the same grip in the popular imagination as the sectors listed above – longer privatised, ruthlessly profit-driven, divided into a series of functional areas, and of course inherently international (among other reasons). In so far as people think about it, these kind of perceptions of the aviation industry could contribute to the idea that public ownership is “not realistic”.
Challenging the greenwash
Taking the UK’s aviation systems into public ownership would certainly be harder to do than, say, re-nationalising the rail network or Royal Mail. But does that mean we should dismiss it? Instead of such abstractions, we should ask whether the kind of transformation of aviation that climate experts agree is needed is possible within the privatised, profit-driven system we currently have. We can and should increase regulation, and implement schemes such as a Frequent Flyer Levy (of which I’m a strong advocate); but how do we deal more comprehensively with an industry that has become the world’s leading exponent of greenwash, adept at selling its narratives to the public and politicians.
Many or most people reading this will be well aware of the problems with policies such as Sustainable Aviation Fuels and Carbon Offsetting. It seems to me likely these fake narratives will continue to persist while privately-owned airlines and airports have the power to promote them and make them stick so that they can carry on with “business as usual” while the planet burns, floods and all the rest. How do we replace this power with the much better situation of an aviation industry that functions to serve and protect the public in all dimensions, including climate impact?
There are two other major reasons why public ownership of the aviation industry is so crucial: the need for an integrated approach to our transport system, and the long-term protection of workers’ jobs and livelihoods.
An integrated public transport system
Let’s bypass just saying “publicly-owned aviation” and instead say “publicly-owned integrated transport system”. Rather than treating aviation as a stand-alone sector, which is really the “rugged individualist” context for the existing industry, we must consider it as an element in a coherent and coordinated policy for transport, with three main aims:
1) to get people from A to B in the lowest impact, most climate-friendly way possible;
2) to democratise travel so that decarbonised travel options are available to, and affordable by, everybody; and
3) to work in conjunction with other sectors of society in order to avoid unnecessary travel.
Point 3, despite what the right-wing press will say, does not mean denying people a holiday; it’s about private jets, unnecessary business flights, over-use for freight, choices about where we grow and make things, use of online technology, etc.
Whatever the debates and progress in terms of greener technology in aviation, such an integrated approach can bring us to a far better place climate-wise as travel options are kept to those that inflict the least possible damage (where possible none). That means governments intervening to avoid the market-based absurdity where flying is far cheaper than train to the same destination, the extreme examples of which alone justify public ownership given the extreme climate emergency we are rushing into.
Make no mistake, as things stand the industry is incentivised to fill the skies with ever more planes. Yes, there are safety and environmental targets, and good work being done to support these; but these targets are set within the context of an ever-expanding sector, and the need to provide airspace and airport capacity to meet that expansion. The wording of the objective in the government’s Aviation 2050 report – “support growth while tackling environmental impacts” – makes abundantly clear the hierarchy of priorities.
Released from the constraints of the free market, a publicly owned aviation system could consider a much broader definition of “the public interest”, so that decisions can be made in the interests of the whole society, setting clear parameters within which the industry must work.
The other key point is workers’ rights and job security. Let’s make two big assumptions. One, that the current greenwash from the aviation industry is ultimately exposed in the face of the climate crisis; and two, that there is a pathway to a decarbonised form of flying in the future, be it electric or a genuine “green” hydrogen. The latter assumption is by no means inevitable, such forms of flying may never emerge on the scale envisaged. But let’s say it does, and it happens in the expected 10-20 year time frame. Safe Landing has done some great work on what this future might look like if it does come about.
That would give us an employment level that may curve downward when (if) we realise that reducing flights is the only sensible near-term solution, and which curves upward again as more sustainable flying is introduced. In the current privately owned industry, that would be disastrous. A reduction in flying would be fiercely resisted by the profiteers, and if it was implemented the result would be a cliff edge of redundancy for workers. We had a taste of this during the Covid pandemic but the impact of the climate emergency will be far worse and more protracted.
Public ownership could both protect those workers and deliver – in so far as it is technically feasible – a meaningful future for aviation. For the workforce there are two possibilities that would never be available in a segmented, privatised, profit-oriented context:
- utilising aviation workers’ skill and expertise in researching, developing and designing the industry of the future, including defining their own roles within it; good management is a prerequisite whether publicly or privately owned, but the former allows for the democratic participation of workers in ensuring that an affordable, accessible and well-run network is a priority.
- transfer into other modes of transport or other sectors, which need to expand hugely from where we are now, where their skills may be applicable or they are retrained if they are not; that transfer being permanent or temporary depending on how the transformed aviation sector develops.
All that requires a degree of coordination and planning not to be found in today’s aviation industry. And it needs a re-imagining of flying as a facet of a transport system that serves the needs of people, society and planet. For all the reasons outlined here (and many others, including those related to protecting pay, terms and conditions, trade union rights, etc, for workers) I would argue that a future aviation industry that can actually continue in a 1.5° or less world has to be one element in what we really need: namely a decarbonised, integrated and publicly-owned transport system.
* Tahir Latif is Secretary of the Greener Jobs Alliance. He previously worked for the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) and was President of the Aviation Group in civil service union PCS. He is the co-author (with Sam Mason) of PCS’s pamphlet Aviation Democracy: The case for public ownership of the aviation sector to protect jobs and protect the planet, which you can download here.
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