Aeroplanes and COVID-19: Another contradiction of global capitalism

Passengers in a commercial aeroplane cabin.
The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 illustrates how air transportation can rapidly transmit infectious disease.

While a growing number of critical scholars acknowledge that global capitalism constitutes the overarching driver of anthropogenic climate change, one of the smaller elephants in the room has been the aviation industry.

The number of aeroplane flights worldwide has been growing — at least until COVID-19 forced reluctant governments around the world to temporarily greatly restrict the number of flights. Air travel has played a key role in turning a localised epidemic in the Wuhan district of China into a global pandemic.

Prior to this unfortunate event, aircraft flights were contributing 5–6% of greenhouse gas emissions, not only in the form of carbon dioxide, but also nitrous oxide, methane and ozone.

Despite repeated claims by the airline companies that they were gradually turning to more fuel- and aerodynamically-efficient aircraft, this efficiency was offset by a rise of 5% in aeroplane flights per annum (in keeping with the Jevons Paradox, or rebound effect, where the economical use of fuel results, not in diminished consumption, but in an overall increase).

This rise was even higher for affluent people in China, India and other developing countries, who started to emulate the habits of their counterparts in developed capitalist countries.

The 2016 documentary series City in the Sky asserted that “every day, 100,000 flights criss-cross the globe with more than 1 million people in the air at any time”.

Aeroplanes of many sorts (commercial, military and private) have become an integral component of modern cultural and social life, and a source of tremendous profit-making: they are an integral component of the capitalist world system.

Profit-making

Aeroplanes serve to transport both human actors and commodities to keep world systems functioning. However, they do so with dire environmental, climatic and health consequences.

The human actors who rely on air travel include: business people, politicians, diplomats, celebrities, the super-rich who own multiple homes in far-flung locations, sports teams, tourists, academics, international university students, other students studying abroad for short-term stints, and even United Nations climate change conference delegates, environmentalists and climate activists.

The list seems almost endless but, with some exceptions such as low-paid migrant workers, refugees and rank-and-file military personnel, it consists of relatively affluent people.

Furthermore, air cargo constitutes the underbelly of the airline industry. Its operations often occur at night and at secure inaccessible facilities, bonded warehouses and multi-modal logistics centres often located some distance from passenger terminals.

Corporate globalisation has resulted in a growing reliance on air cargo to quickly transport manufacturing components and products.

Last but not least, militarism is highly dependent on aircraft, whether it is in the form of propelling jet fighters, drones or transporting military cargo and personnel around the world to engage in imperialist ventures.

Historically, there has been a powerful nexus between the aviation industry — whether aircraft manufacturing, or the airlines — and airport construction. This nexus has been strong around the world because of the military significance of aviation, particularly for the United States, but also Britain, Germany, the former Soviet Union and Russia today, and most recently China.

Governments often subsidise aircraft manufacturing, be it military or commercial aeroplanes, as well as commercial airports and military air fields and even aircraft carriers.

While infectious diseases can be transmitted via ship and train travel, aeroplane flights have elevated the spread of diseases to a new level.

The internal environment of the aeroplane is an unhealthy one, with little oxygen, the germs carried by both crew and passengers, and low-level electromagnetic radiation from flight equipment and x-rays encountered at high altitudes.

The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in late November 2002 lasted until July 2003 and, according to the US Center for Disease Control, infected more than 8098 people and killed 774 people as it spread from China to at least 20 other countries.

It illustrates how air transportation can serve as a rapid transmitter of infectious disease.

Tragically, by comparison to SARS, the role of aeroplanes as well as cruise ships in spreading COVID-19 has been exponentially more profound, turning a local epidemic starting out in Wuhan into a global pandemic.

As of April 15, Johns Hopkins University reported nearly 2 million confirmed cases of COVD-19, resulting in 126,761 deaths, with 493,658 people having fortunately recovered.

Other than China where COVID-19 started, thus far the disease has largely impacted on developed capitalist countries: at the time of writing there are 609,422 confirmed cases in the US, 174,060 in Spain, 162,488 in Italy, 132,210 in Germany and 131,362 in France.

While further study is needed, developed capitalist societies are the most reliant on air travel, both domestically and internationally. Only time will tell how COVID-19 will adversely impact the health of people in developing or peripheral capitalist countries, such as India, Indonesia and those in sub-Saharan Africa.

In contrast to the developing capitalist countries, with their mixed quality of health infrastructures, the impact on the developed countries could be devastating in ways that are still difficult to ascertain.

Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic has forced governments around the world to ground the vast majority of international flights as well as many domestic flights.

Nationalisation

The International Air Transport Association terms the pandemic as “apocalypse now”.

Virgin Airlines in Australia is seeking a bailout from the federal government. Qantas chief Alan Joyce, reportedly the highest paid Australian CEO, opposes the bailout  unless his company receives one too, on the grounds that Virgin is mostly owned by government-supported foreign airlines.

A far preferable strategy would be to allow Virgin to collapse, nationalise Qantas (as it once was), sack Joyce, shift to a much reduced national airline, and create a nationalised, solar-powered railway system that greatly improves on existing state rail systems.

But implementing such measures would require political will, which is missing in both the government and the Australian Labor Party.

It is far too early to say when humanity will return to some state of normalcy, or a post-COVID-19 world.

One possible scenario is that a consolidated airline industry may seek to rise like a phoenix, offering perhaps relatively inexpensive flights, particularly with a low oil price, at least in the short run. Such a scenario has occurred previously in a highly competitive industry.

While individuals may opt not to fly or to reduce their flying — an option some have pursued — work and career demands have made aero mobility central to global capitalism.

We need to move beyond aeroplanes as much as possible, but such an effort will have to be part of creating an alternative ecosocialist world system — one that is committed to social justice, real democracy, environmental sustainability, a safe climate and the preservation of human life and biodiversity.

Perhaps in time solar-powered aeroplanes — beyond the small experimental ones that exist — will become a reality.

The global socio-economic, ecological, climate and health crises that are the by-products of global capitalism require us to re-examine much of what we do in terms of work and leisure, what we eat and consume in general, what sort of dwellings we reside in and how we move about our planet.

A simpler way for the affluent would, at the very least, would entail minimising the use of aeroplanes and motor vehicles. It would also ban cruise ships which, while not transporting nearly as many passengers as aeroplanes, are even more environmentally damaging and, so far in this pandemic, have led to devastating health consequences for passengers, crews and people onshore.

[Hans Baer is the author of Airplanes, the Environment, and the Human Condition (Routledge, 2020).]

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