Why we should all be flying in economy class

How well did your election prediction go? Wide of the mark, perhaps, like mine.

Well, here’s a travel prediction for you that I believe will come true over the next few months and years. It will have a profound effect on the aviation industry, or at least on those airlines that devote themselves to cosseting passengers with premium products.

One day soon, a wise organisation such as a not-for-profit concern will tell its travelling executives: “Economy class only from now on, regardless of the length of the flight.”

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The carbon footprint you make as an airline passenger is in proportion to the actual footprint of your seat. Business class is a waste of space and burns an absurd amount of fuel.

But that does not mean long-haul travellers must endure miserable journeys. A shrewd employer will let their staff choose civilised flying times and allot extra time for the journey so that the traveller gets some proper sleep, in a real bed.

It’s a win-win-win. Damage to the environment is reduced, not least by drastically cutting the carbon footprint per passenger. The employer saves money. And while the traveller forsakes a lie-flat bed, elaborate meals and buckets of frequent-flyer points, they will actually have a less gruelling journey.

Here’s how it could work on a UK-Australia journey. From Heathrow or from Manchester there is a civilised Emirates departure at around 9am for Dubai. The Airbus A380, which features an excellent economy class, reaches the Gulf in good time for dinner – and a night in a nearby hotel. Next morning, another SuperJumbo awaits at 10am to whisk you to Singapore, with a civilised mid-evening arrival. And day three dawns with a wide choice of morning departures to Sydney, Perth and other cities, getting in around teatime.

The concept of daytime flying represents a step back to an age before ultra-long-haul flights could take you nonstop from London to Australia. In the early days of intercontinental air travel, passengers flew during the day and slept in proper hotel beds at night (with the crew also benefitting from some decent rest).

Sure, the overall journey will take perhaps twice as long, but the passenger will feel twice as good and their individual carbon emissions will be about one-third of those of the business-class passenger. Meanwhile, the employer has typically saved two-thirds of the cost of a premium ticket.

A sensible traveller really doesn’t mind economy travel during the day: there are films to watch, meals to eat, naps to grab. It is on overnight flights that the value of business class rockets, along with the financial and environmental cost. Subtract the night flights, and all-economy is easy. 

We have yet to establish whether the new government has any sense. But if our leaders want a quick, popular win, they should adopt my cunning plan early in the parliament. Because this business-travel policy simultaneously saves taxpayers’ money and signals virtue in limiting the harm caused by aviation.

Airline passengers can do much besides to minimise their carbon footprint, by flying on airlines that pack their planes almost full to the brim (eg easyJet and Ryanair) and which have fleets made up mainly of the most modern aircraft (Qatar Airways and Norwegian, at least when the latter gets all its Boeing 737 Max and 787 jets in the air again).

But short of stopping flying, the biggest step any of us can make is to shun the premium classes. I invite you to vote for my economy manifesto.

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