Mar 2010

The collapse of British Airways

John Band has a good analysis of the current British Airways strikes over at his place. It’s well worth a read.

He opens the piece by pointing out that BA’s “business model is unsustainable”. This is true in the sense that he describes it. But it’s also true in another sense; one that’s shared by the airline industry as a whole. Some within the industry have begun to belatedly wake up to this fact. A month or so ago, Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines fame) had this to say…

The next five years will see us face another crunch — the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well.Richard Branson | Quoted in The Guardian

Of course, anyone who has been aware of the peak oil problem for longer than ten minutes will find themselves shaking their head in dismay at Branson’s statement. His belief that five years represents enough time to prepare for “the oil crunch” is roundly contradicted by every serious analysis of the problem that’s been carried out to date. Most famously (and arguably most authoritatively) the Hirsch Report, carried out by the US Department of Energy, has this to say about the length of time required to prepare for, and mitigate, the effects of peak oil.

Mitigation Efforts Will Require Substantial Time

Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

Even taking this into account, there’s a very real possibility that — with regards to the modern airline industry — the problems presented by peak oil simply cannot be mitigated. Even if we had two decades, which appears not to be the case, there’s just no alternative fuel for modern commercial aircraft.

Let me stress that nobody sane is suggesting that oil or jet fuel will disappear overnight. Peak oil will result in a gradual reduction in crude oil production capacity of between 3% and 6% per annum. This will, however, be more than enough to cause massive economic upheaval of the kind that will certainly overshadow our current credit crisis*. More specifically, it’ll be enough to put an end to mass air travel in anything like the form we presently enjoy.

Put bluntly, British Airways is part of a dying industry. Flying millions of people around the world in jet aircraft is unsustainable in the short to medium term and while some form of commercial air travel will surely remain available to the extremely wealthy, the industry will soon be a tiny fraction of its current size.

I like to imagine a future — say a hundred years from now — where we have successfully weathered the twin storms of resource depletion and Climate Change. Where we have achieved, almost certainly through terrible suffering and struggle, some kind of balance with our environment. Where we have adopted an ethos and a lifestyle that allow us to look towards a sustainable future. And in this future, I imagine our great grandchildren flying across oceans in magnificent solar-powered airships.

But that’s science-fiction. A speculative future that becomes less and less likely every day we persist in ignoring the need for it.

* I happen to believe that peak oil had a part to play in precipitating the current crisis, but it was mostly a result of breathtaking folly and greed within the global political and financial establishment.

Posted in: Opinion