This week Qantas stood down 20,000 staff without pay, the day after pocketing its share of the $715 million federal government Covid-19 pandemic “relief package” for the Australian aviation industry. And earlier the International Civil Aviation Organisation, of which Qantas is a member, lobbied to delay the adoption of health measures that could harm air traffic, instead of limiting flights as much as possible.
What are aviation’s priorities?
The airline industry has a history of tax avoidance and of seeking and obtaining special treatment while treating workers badly. International aviation pays no tax on its fuel. And Qantas, as reported by Michael West Media, “has paid no tax on an humongous $62 billion in total income over the four years of available Tax Office transparency data”. Since 2014 when staff wage levels were frozen, Qantas executive and senior management remuneration packages have increased by $60 million, the same amount of foregone CPI-based staff wage increases, according to Steve Purvinas, Federal Secretary of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association.
Magdalena Heuwieser from the 157 member international Stay Grounded network said on Wednesday, “It is unacceptable that the industry’s profits are privatised, while it expects its losses to be covered by the public.”
Flight Free Australia, a member of the Stay Grounded network, opposes the waiving of aviation fees and charges to the value of $715 million, since it’s clearly not going to those staff stood down. Reducing airline costs in this way, will only make things worse, not only for staff but for all of us, if thereby aviation returns to business as usual after the Covid-19 crisis.
The airline industry has made a fortune over the past decades, with higher growth rates than most other economic sectors, on the back of soaring emissions. Aviation is already responsible for 5-8% of climate heating worldwide, when we include the climate impacts additional to those from CO2. This is a huge contribution from a minority of the world population — the roughly 10% who have flown.
“As bad as the Coronavirus is, its outcome will look like a head cold compared to that of the climate crisis — entire countries on fire or underwater, mass starvation and forced migration”, says Magdalena Heuwieser. “If we can act collectively to stop thousands of deaths from the virus, surely we can do so to stop the millions predicted from climate disaster. Let’s use this unintended pause in air travel to rethink what we can do to stop far worse consequences from climate collapse and flying’s contribution to it”.
The pandemic has taught us that science matters, harm reduction matters, acting quickly matters, a public sector matters, and leadership matters. Continuing to prioritise them is also the way we can get to zero emissions and climate safety.
If voluntarily choosing to not fly is an accepted harm reduction response to a prudent risk assessment of exposure to Covid-19, surely it can also be an accepted harm reduction response to a prudent risk assessment of exposure to the heating from booming and catastrophic aviation emissions.
The current situation requires that public funding takes care of people, not airlines. It requires a shift towards climate-safe forms of travel and a just transition for laid-off employees in the aviation sector, including direct financial support and training for climate friendly jobs.