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Has flying been unfairly demonised?

  • Justin Rowlatt -
  • 25 May 07, 07:14 PM

Let me come clean: I love flying and I have done ever since I was a boy.

justinflying1.jpgIndeed, I still remember the day a friend of mine brought an impossibly exotic treasure into our primary school classroom. It was one of those plastic packets of miniature “travel essentials” from some now defunct airline – Pan American or BOAC.

I can’t remember exactly what it contained – nylon socks, an eye-shade and a perfumed face wipe in a foil wrap perhaps. That wasn’t the point. What made my friend’s little plastic package so fabulous was that it was proof that my friend had actually flown in a plane.

justinflying2.jpgIt was three years before I flew for the first time – a family holiday to Morocco when I was about 10. Of course I’ve flown hundreds of times since then – most recently on my Mission to Mumbai – but I still enjoy every flight.

My problem is that a year of carbon-counting as Ethical Man brought home just what an environmental disaster flying is – my family’s one trip to the Canaries last year created as much carbon as a year of driving our car.

That’s why I’ve posed my deliberately provocative question. I want to know if it is possible to fly with a clear conscience.

So here’s the good news: when you look at the numbers, modern jet aeroplanes are actually a very efficient form of transport.

Indeed, the jet engine is one of the most effective ways to convert the energy from fuel into thrust. The best jets are 37 per cent efficient. By contrast it seems modern petrol engines are around 25 per cent efficient while a finely tuned diesel will achieve, at best, 32 per cent efficiency.

justinflying3.jpgHow does that translate into actual fuel consumption? Take a look at some figures: my old car - a two litre petrol Saab 9-5 estate - uses 8.6 litres per 100km. The most efficient cars do better than that. The Toyota Prius, for example, is much more frugal. It uses 4.3 l/100km.

So what about aircraft? The average jet plane now uses around 4.8 l/100 km per passenger – just a little worse than a Prius with no passengers. But the manufacturers say that modern jets are much more efficient.

Airbus claims it makes the most efficient aeroplane currently flying, the A380. It says this behemoth uses just 2.9 l/ 100km per passenger. (Here’s the dull bit: that’s the fuel consumption when you assume a three class configuration operating at capacity with 525 passengers).

As far as I can tell the latest jumbos are similarly efficient – it is hard to be certain because the manufacturers do not publish comparable figures – but Boeing’s 747-8 uses 3.7 l/100kms per passenger when operating at 70 per cent of capacity. (Assuming it is configured to hold 470 passengers in three classes).

So if jet engines are more efficient than car engines why do they get such a bad rap?

One reason is pretty obvious - we use planes to travel extremely long distances. I covered 14,000 kilometres on my trip to Mumbai and that weekend in Jamaica racked up just over 15,000 kms. Each trip covered pretty much the same distance as the average British car driver travels in a year.

The other big problem is that planes release their pollutants high up in the atmosphere where they have an even stronger greenhouse effect. The process is known as radiative forcing. What radiative forcing means is that aircraft emissions are reckoned to be almost twice as damaging as emissions at ground level.

So, combine the distance you fly with the effect of radiative forcing you can see why environmentally conscious people get so worried by our appetite for air travel. You can do as I did - get rid of your car, switch to energy efficient bulbs, eat locally grown food - but take one holiday flight and you will wipe out all your careful carbon cuts.

So here’s the important question: is there anything that can make flying less environmentally damaging? The received wisdom is that there is no simple fix but I’m not so sure. Here are some thoughts – please tell me what you think.

My friend Omar - who featured in our original flying film – speculates that turboprop planes – a kind of hybrid between a propeller and a jet plane could be as much as a third more efficient on short journeys.

That huge saving isn’t because turboprops are inherently more efficient than jets. The reason is that much of the fuel used by jets on short journeys is to get them to the high altitudes where they are most efficient. Turboprops fly at lower altitudes which saves fuel and also reduces radiative forcing.

What I want to know is this: if Omar is right why don’t more airlines use turboprops?

And Omar reckons turboprops would be less efficient than jets on long-haul flights. But there is some good news here too. The aeroplane manufacturers say they are doing their very best to improve fuel efficiency. They say today’s aircraft are 70 per cent more efficient than those of 40 years ago and that more efficient planes are in development.

Boeing boasts that its new 787 will better the fuel efficiency of even the A380. It claims that fuel consumption (assuming a two class configuration and 90 per cent occupancy) could be as low as 2.4 litres per 100 km.

There are other ways to cut emissions. IATA, the International Air Transport Association, estimates that improving air traffic control could cut emissions by as much as 12 per cent. It claims that by straightening out air lanes it has already cut millions of tonnes of CO2.

And I’ve got a last suggestion that would massively increase aircraft efficiency in a stroke. It would be straightforward and cheap to implement and doesn’t rely on some untested new technology.

What is my innovation? Just get rid of first and business class.

Think about it. If you packed the A380 with economy seats it could hold 853 passengers. A back of the envelope calculation suggests this “economy” Airbus (operating at capacity) would use 1.9 litres per passenger per 100km. That’s pretty much half the fuel consumption of most current aircraft.

Of course flying in such an aircraft would still be a carbon intensive activity but considerably less so than current planes. That’s because the effect of radiative forcing means each tonne of carbon you don’t emit is the environmental equivalent of saving two tonnes.

In fact – here’s a thought – now that I’m not Ethical Man maybe that’s what I should do. An economy-only eco-airline, the green alternative!

What’s the telephone number of Airbus again?

Newsnight Review in Cannes, 25 May, 2007

  • Newsnight
  • 25 May 07, 06:25 PM

From Kirsty Wark.

Newsnight Review decamped to the Cannes Film Festival and tonight John Harris, Mark Kermode, Julie Myerson and I will have our distilled thoughts on the films we’ve seen.

I can tell from the panel’s body language when we emerge blinking into the light from screenings that there’s going to be some major disagreements on the show.

The deal on Newsnight Review is that the guests are not allowed to confer on films before the show – it’s been tough because we’ve all had such strong reactions to what we’ve seen. I know that because John, Mark and Julie can talk to me individually and I keep schtum about their views.

scorsese203.jpgIt has been such an extraordinary festival and before I tell you what we’ve all seen, we’ve also bagged the only British interview with Martin Scorsese, who has just launched the World Cinema Foundation here in Cannes to save neglected, damaged and "orphan" films from all over the world.

Scorsese has put together a committee of some of the best directors including Wong Kar Wai, Walter Salles and Bernard Tavernier and their aim is to encourage old archives to come forth with material for a new and eager audience.

Scorsese talked about films leading to a better cultural understanding between nations and it struck me that his outfit is a bit like a United Nations of cinema.

But where are these films going to be shown? The multiplexes? Are they going to put a Kenyan or a French film from the 1960s on their screens? But it’s not just neglected films – what about Scorsese’s own films? It’s such a pity that my kids will never see Taxi Driver or Raging Bull on anything but a DVD. Wouldn’t it be great if a multiplex had a Scorsese day or a Wim Wenders day or a Kurosawa day? Fat chance.

He also talks to me of his upcoming documentary on the Rolling Stones, his new project with Mick Jagger, and sex on screen.

Among the films we’ve seen, Persepolis – up for the Palme D’Or – falls into the category of aiding cultural understanding with great wit and warmth.

Iranian director Marjane Satrapi has turned her autobiographical graphic novel into a feature length cartoon about growing up during the Islamic Revolution with her co-director Vincent Paronnaud.

Also in the running is Quentin Tarantino’s homage to 70s Grindhouse films – Deathproof - originally designed as a companion piece to Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.

Deathproof is a slasher movie with Kurt Russell as the psycho Stuntman Mike – out to murder a posse of beautiful women. It has all the hallmarks of the B-movies of the seventies which Tarantino fed on when he was growing up - seemingly random jump cuts, refocusing, scratches, rough joins all perfectly composed by Tarantino.

In the competition, by contrast, Julian Schnabel’s film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Le Scaphandre et Le Papillon – is an exercise in restraint, beauty, wit and honesty.

It’s based on the autobiographical novel by the former chief editor of French Elle who suffered a massive stroke when he was 43. It left him totally paralysed but alert, able to use only one eye to communicate.

And so Jean-Dominique Bauby, this once fast-living, charismatic seducer told his story by the blink of an eye and Julian Schnabel has in his film made the audience Jean-Do’s confidante locked in from the world around him.

It’s a privilege to see films here in Cannes. So few complain about queuing in 30 degrees for up to an hour to secure a seat at a screening. Once in a cool dark cinema you are taken to some strange places. One such place is the Scottish highlands as imagined in Harmony Korine’s film Mr Lonely. The cast are all impersonators living in a commune. Samantha Morton is Marilyn Monroe and Anita Pallenberg is the Queen. The Mr Lonely of the title is Michael Jackson played by Diego Luna. But Korine also pursues a parallel seemingly unconnected story about flying nuns in South America, a phenomenon which is regarded as a miracle by their local priest, played by Werner Herzog. Mr Lonely is in competition for Un Certain Regard.

Not in competition at all is Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart. And in fact there are no British films up for the Palme D’Or at all this year. The film is based on the book of the same name by Mariane Pearl about her husband Daniel’s abduction and murder in Pakistan in January 2002.

Pearl, the Asia Bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, was pursuing a lead on the failed shoe bomber Richard Reid when he was kidnapped by jihadists – among the first of many journalists captured post 9/11 during the war on terror. Dan Futterman plays Daniel Pearl and Mariane Pearl is played by Angelina Jolie.

We’ll also be discussing Gus Van Sant’s skater boy nightmare Paranoid Park. It’s based on Blake Nelson’s novel about teenage disaffection in Portland, Oregon and it’s classic Van Sant territory.

Death also stalks Bela Tarr’s film of the Georges Simenon novel The Man from London. It’s a mesmeric black and white film about mortality, sin and punishment and the often unrealisable longing for happiness.

The Coen brothers are also in the running for the Palme D’Or with their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, set on the frontier between Texas and Mexico, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem.

Our Newsnight Review guests have also been to see Control, Anton Corbijn’s film about the death of the Joy Division’s frontman, Ian Curtis, which also features Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.

So it is going to be a packed programme. John, Mark and Julie will also reveal which film they loved the most and the one that they loathed.

We’re broadcasting from the UK Film Council's beachside pavilion and as it’s outside we’ve been watching the forecast as intently as we’ve been watching the films. There is a threat of thunder and lightning but if it doesn’t materialise we hope they’ll be plenty of sparks on the programme anyway.

Join us to find out.

Watch the latest available edition of Newsnight Review by clicking here.

Friday, 25 May, 2007

  • Newsnight
  • 25 May 07, 05:56 PM

Presented by Gavin Esler.


A clear majority of British people have told a BBC opinion poll that they agree with the Trade and Industry minister Margaret Hodge on her controversial comments about immigration.

She said "British citizens should always get priority for social housing ahead of immigrant families".

Her Labour colleague the Education Secretary Alan Johnson accused Ms Hodge of using the language "of the BNP".

Newsnight's Paul Mason has been hearing the views from the heartland of England - Nottinghamshire - about immigration, and we'll debate the issue with the Labour MP Keith Vaz and the leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin.

Identity Theft

At one time thieves targeted jewels or cash as the most lucrative form of crime, but nowadays information can prove just as attractive.

Data theft is a growing criminal problem and one which is of increasing concern to the regulators.

But very little is known about how stolen data is used.

Martin Shankleman recently uncovered such a scam, and set out to see what happened next.

We've also been asking about your experiences of identity theft. Have you been a victim? Do you think those who hold your details do enough to stop this kind of theft happening? Join the debate here.

Newsnight Deputy Leadership Debate

And we are also looking for your help with a special programme Jeremy Paxman is hosting on Tuesday.

He will cross examine the six candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in a Newsnight special.

We’re giving you the whole bank holiday weekend to think about the questions you’d like Jeremy to put to them.

Post your thoughts here and we’ll arm him with the best ones on Tuesday night.

Plus, Kirsty Wark is in Cannes for Newsnight Review, where she has an interview with film director Martin Scorsese. Click here for more.

Deputy Leadership hopefuls on Newsnight

  • Newsnight
  • 25 May 07, 03:58 PM

On Tuesday night (29th May) Jeremy Paxman will cross examine the six candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in a Newsnight special.

Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Jon Cruddas, Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson will take part in the first televised hustings of the contest.

What questions would you like Jeremy to put to them? Post your thoughts below and we’ll arm Paxman with the best for the programme.

Have you had problems with identity theft?

  • Newsnight
  • 25 May 07, 01:44 PM

Credit cardsTonight on Newsnight we have a report about the wholesale misuse of a database of personal details, but we want to hear about what has happened to you.

Have you been a victim of identity theft?

Do you think those who hold your details do enough to stop this kind of theft happening? And what experience of the police have you had if you've reported an identity theft?

Join the debate below.

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