Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

It’s Time for Labour to Be Bold on the Airline Crisis

Coronavirus has cratered the airline industry, and its executives have responded by attacking workers. Labour needs a bold response – now is the time to argue for public ownership to save jobs and the climate.

Perhaps no industry has felt the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown and its economic aftershocks  more keenly than aviation. The industry is in freefall, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimating that the outbreak will cost the industry £249 billion in lost revenue. This has potentially dismal consequences for tens of thousands of workers, many of whom have already been laid off. But it also represents a chance to transform the aviation industry – responsible for a rising share of carbon emissions and repeated attempts to undermine climate action – in the interests of workers and planet.

If aviation itself is in uncharted territory, the government’s response to the crisis has been depressingly predictable. Chancellor Rishi Sunak quickly drew up plans to support airlines with no safeguards to ensure that workers kept their jobs or that taxpayers’ money didn’t end up in shareholders pockets. EasyJet, or more accurately its shareholders, was first to take full advantage, walking away with £600 million despite the fact that it had just distributed £171 million in dividends – £60 million of which went to the group’s billionaire founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. IAG, the parent company of British Airways, followed, days after setting out plans to fire nearly a quarter of its staff. 

Labour has rightly argued, with unions, that any public support should be used to safeguard the sector’s 340,000 workers and not be funnelled to shareholders. But Labour has resolutely failed to take this opportunity to influence the direction of this climate-wrecking industry. Airline emissions have doubled in the past 20 years and are projected to be the UK’s largest contributor of greenhouse gases by 2050. That’s a recipe for climate collapse. How would Labour use this unprecedented opportunity to change the sector, then? It is insisting that any taxpayer funded bailout should depend on the sector demonstrating a ‘clear commitment to tackling climate change’, and on using ‘cleaner fuels and other cutting-edge low or zero emission technologies’. 

These demands are simply not good enough from Labour, particularly from a party that aspires to climate justice. Much of the UK industry has already committed to reach net-zero by 2050 through the Sustainable Aviation Coalition – a commitment widely and rightly derided as greenwash, not least for the outlandish suggestion that the industry could reach carbon neutrality whilst providing 70% more flights. We need decarbonisation now, not hopes for a technological saviour later.

The ICAO, the body that governs the sector’s international operations, is little more than a club for protecting corporate interests. Breakthrough technologies like electric planes and truly sustainable aviation fuels, which ICAO rests its promises of decarbonisation on, are in fact decades away. Meanwhile, aviation emissions have been omitted from international agreements on climate change and the UK’s five year carbon budgets, in a cynical attempt to avoid responsibility for our emissions. The Conservative government and local councils of all stripes have exploited this fact to aggressively promote aviation by pursuing unpopular and damaging airport expansions, providing tax exemptions, state aid and infrastructure spending to the industry. 

The industry is a perfect example of the corporate vampirism which extracts value from workers and society while trashing the climate. Exorbitant payouts have become the norm. But the biggest symbol is Richard Branson, the billionaire tax exile owner of Virgin Airlines, who has been pleading for a government bailout for months while cutting a third of his workforce. If Labour were to attack this deeply unpopular figure and demand public control of Virgin Airlines with plans to implement a just transition it would attract substantial public support and force the government on the back foot. It could even demand a big tax bill for Branson to boot. Tackling these Big Polluter executives head on would be good for workers, good for the climate, and good politics.

We won’t get a chance like this again. Instead of pushing for superficial climate conditions, Labour should be advocating for systemic change in the sector, using the current crisis to take UK aviation into public hands. A controlling public stake in these companies would enable the swift winding down of domestic routes and a phasing down of capacity that private corporations will never pursue on their own. It would also allow for a managed and just transition so workers get retraining and support, not redundancies. 

Within a wider green industrial strategy, this transition would protect workers and provide new jobs in new green industries. We’ve already seen cabin crew members upskilled and redeployed to Nightingale hospitals to support the NHS through the coronavirus crisis. And, as workers’ representatives at Unite have argued, now is the time to put highly skilled engineers to work building the green technology we need for a sustainable future.

Labour should not be afraid to put such a plan on the agenda. A recent Survation poll indicated a clear desire from the public for the government to take a more interventionist role in the economy post-crisis. Polling by 10:10 Climate Impact has shown that a majority of people do not think the government is doing enough to tackle the climate impact of aviation. Recent years have also seen sustained grassroots opposition to runway expansions at UK airports. Most recently, local councils bailed out Manchester Airport Group to the tune of £250 million, leading to local environmental groups – led by Manchester Labour for a Green New Deal – to call on local leaders to spend that money on creating green jobs instead.

This is Labour’s chance to advocate for, even potentially win, transformative change in one of the world’s most environmentally destructive industries and to show up the Tories’ flimsy commitment to tackling the climate crisis in the process. It’s time Labour called for public control of aviation to protect workers and planet, not polluters.