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What price rock bottom flights?

Comment

I have just been searching the internet for cheap flights to Italy as some friends of mine are getting married near Genoa next September.

'Why get married in Genoa?' I asked. 'Because it's beautiful - and it's easy to fly to, ' they replied.

They have friends and family all over the world. Air travel is how they keep in touch with parents in Sydney, sisters in the Netherlands and friends in Los Angeles while working and living in London.

They are not alone in having such global lifestyles. The world is unbelievably accessible and at a remarkably cheap price if you plan ahead.

But I must admit I did not realise just how cheap until this week. Interrogating the British Airways and Ryan Air sites showed that, yes, as I suspected, I could easily make the return trip for under £100 a head. But booking this far ahead, I was amazed to see that I could also reduce this price to £4.99 plus tax each way - a total of £33.44 for two adults and a child.

That's a round trip of 2,700km at less than 0.8p per km! It makes the cab ride to the last wedding I attended in London look pretty poor value.

It is no wonder that MPs on the transport select committee have this week been tussling so hard with the debate of the definition of a sustainable air transport policy.

And as civil engineers swarm over the site of Heathrow Terminal Five, it is perhaps rather ironic to see that this debate is under way. Ironic because they cannot have only just noticed that the sustainable consequences of air travel go beyond the location of the airport.

The goal posts are also continuously on the move as airlines compete to offer the best and most flexible range of destinations possible. People want to be able to fly from their local airport and airlines want bigger and bigger hubs to improve the efficiency of transfers.

So can air travel ever really be sustainable? Probably not. Definitely not if it remains possible to fly to Genoa for £4.99 plus tax.

Unless, of course, the tax element is increased to cover the hidden and long-term costs of air travel now borne by the whole of society. These include the cost of noise and air pollution and the drain on the earth's natural resources used to fuel and maintain aircraft.

But let us not forget that there are huge benefits from air travel. It is really good for society that destinations around the world are so accessible today. Aside from the economic benefits, knowledge of other countries, people and cultures is vital if we are to live positive and war-free lives in the future.

And personally I want to be able to travel to my friends' wedding Genoa in September. I am looking forward to meeting their friends and family from all over the world.

Equally though I am keen to ensure that we are paying the true cost and not building up huge problems for the future. I hope, therefore, that once MPs have decided on a definition for sustainable air travel, that resulting government policy ensures enough money is set aside to protect our future from the pollution and environmental destruction that my cheap flight to Italy must surely be causing.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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