On Aviation, Oil and Tourism: Glimpses of the Future
mass tourism became a reality in the sixties due to the convergence of a
number of factors that mainly arose during World War Two. The belligerents
acquired experience in the design, construction and operation of vast fleets
of heavy bombers used in air raids. The invention of the jet engine and radar
Tourism owes much to modern warfare.
After more than 50 years the airline industry is taken for granted: readily available, safe, fast and affordable now and for the foreseeable future. Indeed, across the planet there is high hope for air travel and tourism as engines of future growth.
Our understanding of energy and technical issues does not allow us to have the same optimistic views given that (1) oil is essential for air travel as there are few substitutes to it and (2) world oil dynamics are changing fast in ways detrimental to the airline industry. Let us see why.
attempts to find substitutes to oil as transport energy have been very difficult.
Recently there have been efforts to use vegetable oils as feedstock for aviation fuel. Although technically successful the volumes produced were minute. Even if production were to increase over the years and adding liquid fuels from coal, the world will probably never produce enough alternative fuels to offset more than a modest percentage of its current oil based aviation fuel needs.
On and off there is talk in some quarters about the use of liquid hydrogen as transportation fuel. Alas there are no known safe and economic ways to store and carry large volumes of liquid hydrogen. Note that there are no technological substitutes for jet turbines which have proven their worth since World War 2. Hence, it is reasonable to assume that in the coming decades there shall be no substitutes for oil or for jet turbines in aviation. The fate of aviation and tourism here and elsewhere resides with oil. It is ironic that the capacity of humans to fly to the blue skies depends on oil that gushes forth from the dark hells of the subterranean worlds. We should ask ourselves what will be the state of oil supply, demand and prices in the coming years. Although these are difficult questions, some light can be shed on oil dynamics.
Oil, coal and natural gas are finite, non-renewable and immense resources that were generated millions of years ago from the slow transformation of biomass buried deep within the earth’s crust. Each ton of coal, oil or natural gas extracted from within the bowels of the Earth inevitably reduces the remaining volumes.
As volumes in Earth’s crust diminish, a point will be reached thereby the resource is unable to sustain current volumetric production which therefore begins to drop. It is a physical inevitability. As the resource is depleted, production slips year by year until extraction is marginal and then abandoned. Production declines can be reversed if new resources are discovered and exploited or if new technologies are used on previously costly and difficult to exploit resources.
excellent case study is the history of oil production in the
all probability, the high oil prices of the period 2004 to 2014 contributed
to the economic crisis of 2008/2009. At the same time, something happened to
US oil production as unexpectedly it began to rise steadily from 2008 till
2015 whilst oil prices tumbled by 50% in 2015. This reversal of fortune can
be explained by the fact that
oil depletion always wins despite immense technical and scientific expertise,
capital and manpower. What happened in the
A majority of studies place that event over a 2010 to 2020 period. Very few studies push it to 2030 or beyond. Nevertheless, it is clear that a peak and decline in world oil production occurring within a narrow time frame is extremely likely. Therefore as oil production stagnates and begins its decline, oil prices may become increasingly volatile, rising rapidly to high levels and then crashing just as quickly as demand is destroyed, then the cycle will begin anew as depletion bites further. Given that air travel is irremediably tied to oil, the impact on that industry will be profound and long lasting. Highly volatile oil prices will cripple air travel and tourism; long haul flights will become increasingly expensive and unaffordable to the majority.
time, only the wealthy will be able to fly frequently over long distances,
for the majority long haul flights will be fairly rare events. Long haul mass
tourism will contract significantly and tourists will probably seek destinations
closer to home. In such a context fewer European tourists may travel to a far
away place like
In conclusion, air travel and mass tourism are irremediably tied to cheap and abundant oil whilst high prices spell deep trouble for these industries. They may not withstand such seismic changes and may end up severely dislocated, shadows of their current selves. It is probable that air travel and tourism will return to what they were in the sixties: privilege of the wealthy. Currently we are living in the golden age of air travel and mass tourism; enjoy it while you can, they are not destined to last long.
Karim Jaufeerally – Institute for Environmental Studies