Airlines on the wrong track with rail attack

Be careful what you wish for, because it may come back to haunt you.
Transport companies, and in particular airlines, have recently been flirting with the green issue, in the belief that it can be used as a cheap, tactical means of knocking spots off the competition. Thus Virgin Trains, in an effort to cudgel the no-frills flights mob, has been running an advertising campaign which claims that a train journey results in 75% less carbon emissions than any comparable trip by air.

Be careful what you wish for, because it may come back to haunt you.

Transport companies, and in particular airlines, have recently been flirting with the green issue, in the belief that it can be used as a cheap, tactical means of knocking spots off the competition. Thus Virgin Trains, in an effort to cudgel the no-frills flights mob, has been running an advertising campaign which claims that a train journey results in 75% less carbon emissions than any comparable trip by air.

Rising to the bait, easyJet reported, with much glee, Virgin to the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds that Virgin has pumped up passenger numbers to illustrate its point. It has also lobbed a damaging grenade into the debating chamber by demanding that Virgin disclose whether its trains use electricity generated by nuclear power stations (deemed a social good, in this context if few others). Of which more later.

EasyJet, it will be remembered, has itself had a recent bruising encounter with the ASA. Late last year, it sought to use the claim that “our planes emit 30% fewer emissions per passenger mile than traditional airlines” in an ad contrasting its own high ethical standing with the money-grabbing tactics of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was just about to double air passenger duty (allegedly for our environmental benefit).

Sadly for easyJet, the ASA didn’t swallow the airline’s argument. It accepted that easyJet’s newer fleet was more carbon emissions-friendly than any other European fleet. But, oh dear, the ASA then ruled that the only way easyJet could justify that 30% figure was because it crammed so many passengers into a plane, thus reducing the per-passenger burn-rate. Not the most edifying of marketing platforms. Ad dismissed.

It is easy to see where this argument is leading. People standing outside greenhouses and lobbing stones can easily get cut by flying glass. Overall, the airline business has a fairly rotten green record. As it happens, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou – the public face of easyJet – is refreshingly candid on this subject: “The fact is, we’re part of the problem and should act,” he said recently at Davos. Others, like BA, have been mealy-mouthed about emissions schemes; or, like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, too downright cynical about building their business to care.

But that’s not to let easyJet’s tactics off lightly. It may be that, in attacking Virgin Trains, the complainants thought they could get two for one. Take an artful sideswipe at one of their airline rivals, Sir Richard Branson (whose own record on carbon cleanliness is far from class-leading), while reserving the broadside for the generic enemy: trains.

But all a wider discussion about planes and trains is likely to do is draw further invidious attention to the planes element. Airlines tirelessly point out that, currently, they account for far fewer carbon dioxide emissions than, for example, road transport or energy companies. Understandably, they are less evangelical about the fact that, if present growth projections are any guide, airlines will soon become some of the worst offenders.

Trains, regardless of the source of their electricity (a matter as it happens for Network Rail, not Virgin), must be a better bet, ecologically speaking, than road transport. And, inasmuch as they have an irreducible function as public transport, they are also a lot more indispensable than planes. The airlines should never forget that one blindingly simple way to radically reduce carbon emissions would be for people to take fewer discretionary flights.

Stuart Smith, Editor

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