Flying: Low Price, High Cost

Crossposted from Torontoist.

Reader Jonathan recently let us know about a trip he took to Ottawa and back via (cue dramatic music) Porter Airlines. That’s right, the airline of the infamous island airport.

It’s no secret that we have been less than enthusiastic about airport expansion, of which Porter Air’s operation has become the most prominent example. That being said, it’s worth noting that Jonathan’s review could not have been more glowing:

Wow! Flying is amazing! I think I might be spoiled forever…Just over two hours after I left my office, I was standing in Ottawa. To give that some context, I left work a little early and got to Ottawa before I normally get out of the office. Compare that with a train trip that takes over 4 hours for the trip alone! That two hours even includes 30 mins I had to kill in a nice lounge with free drinks and wifi.

Actually, we fully expect that his account is more or less typical, and we’ve heard similar stories from others. Not only that, but, as he points out, you would expect an experience so clearly superior to the train to cost way more, right? Not so! “The plane is just $41.70 more for a round-trip than the train,” Jonathan writes. “That’s less than $7 for every hour you save.”

So what’s the problem? If this is such a great service which is clearly filling a need (or, you know, at least the Western “I want it!” definition of need), how come so many people are getting so many bees in so many bonnets?

In fact, it comes down to that all-too-loaded word: cost. What we of course should have said is that Porter Air (and air travel in general) has a relatively low price. The cost, on the other hand, is both hidden and high.

These aren’t abstract, touchy-feely costs either. They’re real economic ones that we’ll all end up paying one way or another. The most blatant of these is the cost of climate change, which air travel contributes to much more than train travel, both because of the extra fuel/energy that’s needed to fly a plane, and also because of the high altitude at which those emissions are released. The Stern report (as everyone is hopefully tired of hearing about) pegged the real cost of not acting to reduce the severity of climate change (it’s already too late to stop it completely) at 3.68 trillion pounds. (Trillion! Pounds!) Stern, along with renowned author George Monbiot and the IPCC have also identified that, in order to avoid the worst of what climate change has to offer, we’ll need to make somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80% reductions in emissions below 1990 levels (that’s significant—always pay attention to the base year when people are talking about reductions) by the year 2050 at the latest (Monbiot suggests 2030).

Either we believe the science or we don’t. If we do, then we’ll quickly come to realize that there’s no room for flights of convenience in a world needing an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (Note also the related but slightly different health and economic costs tied to air quality in Toronto.)

Does that make Jonathan, or others who fly Porter, bad people? We don’t think so. They’re simply making decisions that make sense for them, based on the information they’re presented with. That’s reasonable—that’s what we all do. And the most significant piece of information they have, in this case, is the artificially low price of the plane ticket, which hides its true, high cost. That’s why the idea of using the tax system to send the right price signals to the market is gaining in popularity. In other words, flying, which has a high cost once the externalities are factored in, should be significantly more expensive than taking the train. (This can be done in concert with reductions on other kinds of taxes, so that it’s revenue neutral and more politically palatable.)

In that scenario, individuals will be able to make informed decisions about whether or not they think flying is really worth it. If they do, then fine, but fewer people will. A level of personal freedom will be preserved, and emissions will also be reduced. Unfortunately, of course, this is one of those things that would have to be implemented provincially or federally. Until then, we’ll have to focus on the things that can be done municipally.

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