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Turbulence in the aviation industry makes nonsense of airport plans

Probably the most potent image in the environmental debate, the one invariably chosen to illustrate features on noise, threats to the countryside, plane crashes or terrorist outrages, is the picture postcard of an 11th-century church overshadowed by the monstrous shape of a Boeing 747 lumbering into the air.

The scene can be elaborated. In addition to the church, there can be a village green, a pub, a post office and general store; there will certainly be cottages, probably of the most appealing kind, all of them listed, like the graveyard where village ancestors toss and turn in unquiet graves, counting aircraft instead of sheep.

The juxtaposition of aircraft and ancient buildings works unfailingly to produce a response of instant sympathy, if not incredulity, that in these enlightened times sentient human beings would willingly threaten such an enclave of tranquillity with the roar of turbofan engines, acrid exhaust smoke and the squeal of burning rubber. This is intolerable! How can this go on! Something must be done! But what?

What indeed? For the phenomenon we are dealing with is not a discovered plot to build a poison gas factory in central London, nor an atrocity for the Court of Human Rights, it is simply the price of keeping the number of passengers using the airports of south-east England ahead of the number using Amsterdam's Schiphol, Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt in Germany.

In short it is a deal: four new runways to flatten the village post offices and churches; £15 billion to pay for the civil engineering and construction work;80,000 jobs created (perhaps); and 30 years to see the job done - and the united airports of southeast England established as Europe's premier passenger transport hub.

It sounds convincing.But only if you pretend that everything else in the world will stand still while this grand plan takes shape, and that is a rather big if. It sounds convincing if giant aircraft continue to criss-cross the world bringing in £13 billion a year in overseas tourism to Britain (but less so when you realise that tourism in Britain does not make money, it loses it, with British tourists spending twice as much a year overseas).

It sounds convincing if terrorism can be kept under control, if fuel supplies are uninterrupted and there are no wars in the Middle East, if the longueurs of the planning system and the influence of organised opposition groups does not stall the project until it is abandoned.

It sounds convincing if you do not know that business travel is in terminal decline and its future lies in better teleconferencing and other means of high-speed, high-resolution communications.

Above all, it sounds convincing if you do not believe that the entire airline industry is in a bad way, facing a terminal crisis of profitability. Staggered by the 11 September attacks, US carriers lost £1.7 billion in the first quarter of this year, on top of £7.9 billion lost in the final quarter of last year.

Now every aspect of their operations - from cabin legroom to route planning philosophy - is being reassessed. Even the sacrosanct hub-and-spoke route model, developed by the larger airlines to feed passengers through their transfer points (and religiously copied for the Blair government's expansion plan), has now been thrown into doubt by the relative success of pointto-point, low-cost airlines.

Tourism is a system in which we are all implicit.

The 300 people in this airliner are off to look at the Great Wall of China.The 350 in that one want Shakespeare's birthplace. These are the people in picture postcards, but will they turn up in real life?

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