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Air Travel in the Age of Expensive Oil

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Flickr user Swisscan.

Photo by Flickr user Swisscan.

According to recently released Wikileaks cables, US diplomats suspect the Saudis officials of overreporting their county’s oil reserves, possibly by nearly 40%. This news in unexpected but isn’t that surprising, and is another reminder that sometime this century oil prices will drastically rise as proven, cheaply extractable reserves shrink and world production shifts to more expensive unconventional sources. This, coupled with surging demand driven by growth in developing countries, could make oil increasingly unaffordable.

As oil becomes more and more expensive, society will gradually shift away from it. For most transportation technologies, this isn’t that difficult. Electric cars, high speed rail and urban public transportation could replace most gasoline cars, and ocean-going ships are already extremely efficient with room for further technological fuel economy gains. However, there’s really no way to build a high speed airplane that doesn’t burn fossil fuels. Electric airplanes will likely always be propeller driven and slow, and attempts in the 1950s to develop nuclear powered aircraft were doomed by weigh and radiation shielding issues that probably won’t ever be resolved. Powering jet aircraft required an energy-dense fuel, a requirement that doesn’t seem to accept any substitute for oil. Rising fuel prices will dramatically increase the cost of operating airlines. Gains in engine efficiency and biofuel technology can cancel some of this cost increase, but probably won’t be enough to offset rising airline ticket prices in the long-term. A sustained rise in oil prices will mean a dramatic rise in airline ticket prices, and a lot less people flying.

What will a world without cheap air travel look like? A lot like the 1960s. It’s easy to forget that airline tickets that most people could easily afford are a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the airline industry deregulation started under the Carter administration air travel was much more expensive. People often remember this era with nostalgia- flights were more comfortable, on time, and served decent food- but ticket prices were expensive enough that jet travel was limited to the very rich. Sustained increases in fuel prices could again make air travel unaffordable for most people. Like the 1960s, train travel would become much more competitive with regional flights, and ocean liners could again be an option for intercontinental travel. High airline fuel prices would probably lead to the end of most business trips- advances in communication technologies are increasingly reducing most of the need for expensive face to face meetings anyway. The end of common air travel is probably the most visible change the end of cheap oil will bring. With rising oil prices society will become denser and more urban, and cars and trains will increasingly be electric. But mass air travel can’t exist without cheap oil, and the end of affordable airline tickets will have an enormous social impact. The reality of an entire planet 30 hours away from your home is wonderful, but is probably fleeting. The world of the future will stay flat, but it will be a lot less small.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. A very interesting article! And one that I, as a member of the Sandwich Generation caring for elderly parents in two states, as well as having grandchildren in three states, find rather disconcerting! It would not only make things more difficult for those, like me who need to oversee the care of others who live far away, it could also place a serious hardship on many of our grandchildren who have to travel back and forth to visit parents who live in other states. And sadly, I have seen the ticket prices rise quite a bit, just in the last 3-4 years! Time will certainly tell! Thank you again for some excellent food for thought.

    February 12, 2011
  2. Interesting take on this. I’m not sure whether or not losing cheap air travel would actually look like the 1960’s, but I too remember a time when air travel was only used in my family when someone far away died and there was no way to get to the funeral by car quickly enough. And I think most of us remember the terrible customer service and lack of selection available from those airline operators. However, I think that the competition that has been created by the internet will keep many of those memories from 1960 from ever recurring again.

    February 13, 2011
  3. Great article!, as somebody with a vested interest in the aviation industry I sincerely hope we do not recline back into the 60’s. Alternative fuels are the way forward and the sooner these become widely available the better.

    February 14, 2011
  4. Hi I recently came across your blog. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading your blog. Nice blog. nice content and design I will keep visiting this blog very often

    February 21, 2011
  5. Nick Jacobs #

    Very interesting article. Though the price of oil keeps on increasing, nothing could ever replace air travel as the transportation of choice. I would rather pay extra than spend additional hours on the road or at sea, especially if I have a schedule to keep.

    June 6, 2011
  6. Nice topic. The problem of increased rates of oil is really affecting whole world wide. Not only oil, anything related to this is getting very costly. Every one is getting effected mostly the travel agencies. Travel agencies are also facing problems, they are loosing their customers as they have to increase their package rates.

    June 12, 2011

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