Evening Call: The deal to save Flybe is good for passengers – and terrible for the planet

This won’t be the last time the government does something that contradicts its own environmental policy.

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Well, the good news is that, if you’re someone who regularly needs to fly from, say, Belfast to Cornwall, or Anglesey to Cardiff, then the flights you rely on are not going to stop any time soon. The bad news is that the planet is burning and we’re probably all going to die.

This probably needs some context. The government has agreed a deal to prop up Flybe, by deferring some of its air passenger duty payments. The struggling airline is facing a tax debt widely believed to stand at over £100m. (And you thought your finances were looking tight this January.) The move will enable the airline to keep flying, while its owners – Virgin Atlantic, Cyrus Capital and Stobart Air – invest another £20m into the company.

The deal has been welcomed by passengers, some of whom rely on the airline’s fairly eccentric selection of routes. But it has been attacked by two different sets of people, one of which has a much stronger case than the other.

The weaker case comes from other airlines and the rail industry, who’ve got the hump that the government is propping up a rival. EasyJet and Ryanair have both said taxpayer funds shouldn’t be used to prop up their competitor, while IAG, which owns British Airways, has filed a complaint to the EU arguing that the deal breaches state aid rules. In his letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, BA chief executive Willie Walsh pointed out that Virgin Atlantic is – I paraphrase – really not short of a few bob.

I’m not going to get into the legal ins and outs of bail out – I simply don’t know. But I do think that, from a philosophical standpoint, the idea is entirely defensible, on the grounds that governments subsidise unprofitable transport routes all the time to ensure that those links exist. The railways are still subsidised, albeit less and less as the years go on. In London, busy bus routes are used to subsidise unprofitable but socially useful ones.

And so, if the government thinks there needs to be a direct link between Jersey and Inverness, and no other airline is planning to provide one, there is nothing inherently wrong with deciding it’s worth propping up Flybe. Apart from anything else, Flybe already receives money to run its Newquay to Heathrow route under a “public service obligation” contract.

The stronger case against subsidising an airline is the one made by the Rail Delviery Group, which represents the train operators. It argues that any review of air passenger duty “that encourages more people to fly domestically would limit efforts to tackle the efforts to tackle the climate crisis”, and it is very obviously right. Or, as Green MP Caroline Lucas puts it: “Domestic flights need to be reduced, not made cheaper.”

This, given that it’s 2020 and much of Australia has spent the year so far on fire, feels like rather a pressing point. Not all of Flybe’s routes are replicable by train journeys, thanks to the existence of a big blue watery thing that surrounds these islands, but a fair few of them are. And so, given that the government is meant to be getting carbon emissions, why not subsidise them instead?

The reason we aren’t going down that road is because much of the rail network is at capacity – and changing that is going to mean a lot of investment, starting with HS2. (You can find a good explanation of how that project will benefit people a very long way from the route by rail expert Gareth Dennis here.) But HS2 is unpopular, with both ministers and the public, and it’s not obvious any realistic alternative schemes would be less so.

And so, this won’t be the last time the government does something that contradicts its own environmental policy.

Good day for...

Do Khoun Meuang the elephant calf, who, having been born in a circus in Laos, is now enjoying a new life in the wild. Our regular environmental writer India Bourke has written a lovely piece about the rewilding of domestic elephants.

(Please note that while I say Do Khoun Meuang is having a good day, I am conscious that it’s more correct to say he’s been having a good couple of years. For all I know he’s had an awful day. I haven’t had the opportunity to ask him. He’s 5,000 miles away and he’s an elephant. But anyway.)

Bad day for...

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s Prime Minister and Vladimir Putin’s former stand-in president, who has unexpectedly resigned, taking the rest of the Russian government with him. Exactly what is happening remains unclear, but it seems to have something to do with Putin’s proposed constitutional reforms. The next prime minister is likely to be seen as the president’s anointed successor.

Quote of the day

“Flying has already decarbonised, and can decarbonise more.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock, arguing, not entirely convincingly, that there is no reason whatsoever that we should be flying less. Apparently there’ll be electric planes in the not too distant future. We shall see.

Everybody’s talking about...

The Labour leadership race, which is now entering its 14th decade. Stephen’s politics column this week concerns an under-discussed fact of the contest, which may have implications for Keir Starmer’s campaign: that the Corbynite left now control the party’s mailing lists.

Everybody should be talking about...

The frankly bonkers state of the housing market in the city from which Evening Call is sent. Tech writer Holly Brockwell earlier tweeted a rental listing, in which you can pay the princely sum of £1,625 a month to sleep in the north London district of Camden on a bed which is – there is no way around this – in the bathroom.

My favourite thing about the listing, incidentally: it also includes an arty close-up of a Smeg oven. Because a posh oven is definitely enough to overcome the fact that the bed is literally in the bathroom. The mind boggles.

Houskeeping

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Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. He writes the Evening Call newsletter. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.