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The future of flying

An illustration of Wright brothers' inaugural flight


Passenger numbers are only continuing to rise, especially in fast-growing emerging economies, where newly enriched middle classes are scurrying to board planes as eagerly as their predecessors in richer nations. But that points to one of the more contentious aspects of flying today: its environmental impact.

“The aviation sector faces a grave environmental challenge that is yet to be fully acknowledged,” says Bill Hemmings, an aviation policy specialist at the Brussels-based Transport & Environment research organisation, which estimates the industry’s emissions may be growing by as much as 3 to 5 per cent a year.

“Technical innovation can’t keep pace,” he said. “The answer has to be we all stop flying, certainly to the extent that we do today.”

Businesses need to look seriously at alternatives such as videoconferencing, he says. Governments need to start taxing aviation as much as road and rail transport, and stop building more airports to encourage more subsidised low-cost airlines.

Back in the flight simulator, Vanhoenacker was well aware of such criticism and eager to point out how the industry is working to improve its environmental footprint. Airlines are starting to warn pilots about delays at airports, which means they can slow down, burn less fuel and reduce circling time. The latest aircraft are far more fuel-efficient than their predecessors. And big efforts are made to reduce the weight of aircraft by, for example, ditching baby-changing tables that, incredibly, Vanhoenacker says were once widespread in cockpit toilets.

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