A fresh approach to flying?

East Asia's first budget airline may promise a “fresh” way of thinking, says Ross Perlin, but the reality is more stale. Rising greenhouse-gas emissions call for a rethink in the travel industry.

Described as “the world’s first long-haul budget airline”, Oasis Hong Kong Airlines could hardly have come at a better time. Profits are soaring at low-cost European favourites like Ryanair and Easyjet, the Chinese aviation market is just opening up, and demand for flights between Europe and east Asia has never been higher.

Or maybe it could not have come at a worse time. Aviation’s contribution to carbon emissions is more fully appreciated than ever before, the EU has plans to impose emissions controls on all flights under its jurisdiction, and budget airlines have become some of the worst culprits in an aviation boom that seems to fly in the face of the environmental consequences.

Still in its first months of regular service flying from London Gatwick to Hong Kong, Oasis, promising a "fresh approach to flying", has generated an impressive amount of press for its jaw-dropping fares (advertised as £75 [US$147] each way, before tax). The lowest round-trip, all-inclusive fares found by this author came to £261 (US$513), with fares from £300 (US$589) up much more typical. At the same time, low-cost sites like Expedia and Travelocity turned up tickets on major carriers from around £390 (US$766).

And prices are expected to keep falling. If the long-haul budget market even approaches the size of, say, the European market dominated by Ryanair and Easyjet, we can expect people to fly from London to Hong Kong almost as casually as they now fly from London to Berlin.

But at the moment, the euphoria of travellers is still managing to outshine the concerns of environmentalists.

While the ecological impact of Oasis is negligible in comparison to major airlines like British Airways or (Oasis competitor) Cathay Pacific, the new airline’s launch is another indication that the budget airline model is spreading fast and that the number of flights to, from, and within China is growing exponentially.

Ryanair, in particular, has redefined our sense of the possible for budget airlines. The Irish carrier now flies 362 routes to 22 countries, recently reporting €116 million (US$150 million) in net profits this year, and contributing significantly to commercial aviation’s role in carbon-dioxide-caused climate change. There have been few efforts to curb this kind of growth—in fact, the expansion of airports and tax breaks has fueled it.

According to Steve Miller, the airline’s CEO, Oasis has plans to follow the same trajectory, scaling up its model significantly to include destinations in the U.S. and Europe and acquire 25 airplanes.

Unlike Ryanair, whose CEO, Michael O’Leary, recently stormed against the plans of UK climate change minister Ian Pearson, Oasis takes a fairly moderate stance on the environment. Miller told me: “We are very much aware of pollution here in Hong Kong. We do take this very seriously. The most important thing we’re looking at is, just as soon as we can, going into the newest technology of aircraft. We will look at offsetting whatever [carbon emissions] we contribute, and we’ll certainly join any industry-wide initiative.”

Miller, however, did not identify any specific plans to offset the airline’s contribution to climate change. Talking about the airline’s current thinking, he said:You contribute X amount of carbon and you plant Y trees, and we’re looking at all the options, something which is really meaningful.”

But Richard Dyer, a campaigner on aviation issues for Friends of the Earth, called the coming of long-haul budget travel “a very worrying development.”

“We can expect aviation’s climate changing emissions to grow even faster than they are already,” said Dyer. “There are no technical solutions on the horizon for decades that will radically cut aviation emissions.” So what are the best solutions for combating runaway climate change? Dyer is clear: “Abandoning plans to expand airports and introducing economic measures to manage demand.”

But for every pessimistic environmentalist, there’s an optimistic aviation executive. Steve Miller told me that outbound travel from China is poised to explode, thanks to new-found prosperity: “We are hitting this US$3,500-4,000 GDP per capita level in the Pearl River delta now, so there’s going to be a lot of stimulation [to travel] in those areas. We’re already seeing it.”

Miller said that currently: “60-70% of [Oasis’] traffic originates in the U.K since people in the U.K. are already accustomed to what we’re trying to do.” But that is likely to change soon.

Citing an estimate of some 20 million outbound trips from mainland China at present, Miller called this “the tip of the iceberg.” According to Miller’s figure, less than 2% of China’s population travels abroad each year, but for developed countries, “the generally established figure for outbound travel is 10%.”

Few would deny that increased mobility for people of varying incomes is good in and of itself; the problem is this happening against the backdrop of an airline industry that has yet to face up to its role in carbon emissions and climate change.

Cheap ticket prices are sending people one signal at the same time that concerned scientists and policy makers are trying to send another. According to a recent Oxford University report, for example, airplane emissions already account for 5.5% of total UK carbon emissions – and they are growing fast.

This is the big picture: the ceaseless expansion of airports, a predicted explosion in private aviation, and little political will to treat airlines like other polluters (which is what the new EU regulations would do, oh-so-gradually).

But at the scale of everyday life, the question is what to think about “the fresh approach” of Oasis. What difference would it make to take a stand against budget airlines when there are no “green airlines” to fly with? Is this not a case where governments – or aviation giants like Boeing, Airbus and the engine manufacturers – have to act before ordinary people can reasonably be expected to?


Ross Perlin is a graduate student at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, focusing on the documentation and description of endangered languages.