Air Travel in the Age of Expensive Oil
By Taylor Marvin
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.