The underbelly of the flying machine

Mankind has invented many things the planet would probably have been better off without. To these, Avay Shukla wants to add planes

Representative image of an aircraft (photo: National Herald archives)
Representative image of an aircraft (photo: National Herald archives)

Avay Shukla

I'm finding that, as I get along in years, I'm becoming more and more of a contrarian, preferring to don the mantle of an advocatus diaboli than an advocatus dei. And the reason is simple enough: one can no longer trust what one hears, or believe what one reads.

The obvious is often misleading, as the Pope discovered when he was doing crosswords on a flight. He was presented with a missing first letter in the word "- U N T" and the clue was "relating to a woman". He blushingly filled in the missing letter, until a senior cardinal whispered in his ear: "No, NO, your holiness, the word is AUNT."

See what I mean? (I cannot verify this story, it's just one of the WhatsApp gems floating around, and I mean no offence, but it does convey that men will be men, even if they have taken unholy orders).

Mankind has invented many things we, and the planet, would probably have been much better off had these never seen the light of day: the atomic bomb, toilet paper, SUVs, politicians, the ballistic missile, the electric razor and so on — you can make your own list.

To this, I propose to add flying and planes, for I can see no tangible real benefits which the flying machine has conferred on us, nor has it made the world a better place (unlike other discoveries like penicillin, democracy, the printing press, the wheel, electricity etc.) And the sheer scale of this disaster is matched only by the speed at which it has occurred.

Just 120 years ago, in the words of Bill Bryson, the entire global civil aviation industry consisted of two mechanics and a wooden plane in a bicycle shed in Ohio. Today, it comprises 39,000 planes (not including light aircraft and helicopters) and 40,000 airports. It emits 1.40 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, just about 2 per cent of total global emissions.

First successful flight of the Wright Flyer by the Wright brothers in December 1917 in the USA
First successful flight of the Wright Flyer by the Wright brothers in December 1917 in the USA
Library of Congress

Almost 4.50 billion people fly every year, most just for the heck of it — for pleasure, to visit relatives they never liked in the first place, for honeymoons which will end in divorce before they can cash in their frequent flyer miles, to spend precisely 10 seconds ogling the Mona Lisa before they are pushed on by the 20 million other tourists who visit the Louvre every year, or taking a selfie on Mount Everest after being carried there by sherpas at a cost of US $50,000.

The projected figure of flyers for 2040 is 8 billion — can you even begin to visualise the environmental impact of this catastrophe?

Let us view this in microcosm, to understand how this is benefiting the super-rich primarily. Elon Musk flies 250,000 km a year in his private jets (not because he needs to, but because he can afford to). He generates 1,800 tonnes of CO2 (from just flying, mind you) every year, which is, hold your breath, 250 times the per capita of China, 1,000 times of India, and 90,000 times that of Burundi! 

Other celebrities like Taylor Swift and Oprah Winfrey are not far behind. The top 10 global celebrities probably generate more greenhouse gases than many countries like Somalia, Tonga and, yes, Burundi.

There are other costs and inequities involved. The 40,000 airports cover, at a rough estimate, about 400,000 sq miles of land, one third the size of India. (The largest airport in the world, Al Fahd in Saudi Arabia, covers 700 sq km; our own upcoming Jewar near Delhi will need 51 sq km when complete).

All this is land diverted from agriculture, which could have been used to grow food crops in a world where 40 per cent of the people go to bed hungry. And consider also the millions who have been displaced to make way for these beds of concrete, the refugees of capitalism.

How does this crap benefit either human kind or the planet?

In fact, if you ask me (which I notice you haven't but that will not deter me), it has done the reverse, in addition to the humongous pollution it generates. Places and countries are being devastated by the millions who fly there like locusts — Bali, Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Mounts Fuji and Everest (which will soon have more poop than snow on its slopes), Machu Picchu, our own Goa, Manali and Shimla (and, shortly, Lakshadweep), and so on.

Dangerous viruses can now spread all over the world in just a few days, thanks to flyers. Mallya, Modi, Choksi and others of their ilk would have been in Tihar now had it not been for British Airways or KLM or whichever airline they chose to skip out with billions of our monies. We would have been seeing much more of Sunny Leone's hairpin curves here in India had she not had the opportunity to fly off to Canada just when the nation sighed in unison "yeh dil maange more".

As it is, we have to be satisfied by observing Mr Modi switching roles (and costumes) from vishwaguru to head priest to head honcho. Not exactly the same thing, you will agree, even if you are a bhakt.

I stopped flying in 2006 and have not taken a flight since then, and do not intend to do so if I can help it. The legendary maharajah of our once national airline now looks more like Suresh the con-man, what with passengers being asked to pay separately for window/aisle seats, for water and snacks, for leg room: very soon they will also have to shell out for visits to the toilet.

Flying in India is now an adventure sport: if someone does not beat you up in the cabin, or the air hostess does not spill scalding tea on your child, you are likely to be roused from your slumbers by someone urinating on you. Fine dining has been raised to a new level with worms or chicken in your vegetarian meal, and a-la-carte meals being spread out on the tarmac for that runway experience.

Al Fahd airport in Saudi Arabia covers 700 sq km
Al Fahd airport in Saudi Arabia covers 700 sq km

You can also expect to get screwed for free while ordering your dish, as an Indigo passenger on a Bangalore-Chennai flight on the 1 February found out when he discovered a metal screw in his spinach-corn burger. The sauna is also complimentary, as you sweat for hours in a locked plane on the tarmac while the airline tries (not too hard) to locate the missing pilot, or when you are stranded in a malfunctioning airbridge for hours without even an apology, or forced to complete your journey on a toilet seat because the toilet door won't open.

A passenger never knows when he can expect to depart or arrive, or whether his flight will clear the 'smell test' — another Indigo flight from Delhi to Mumbai had to turn back on 9 February because of an unspecified "foul smell" (is it time to make our planes ODF (open defecation free) too? And through all this, said airline is reported to have declared a profit of Rs 7,000 crore in the last quarter! Proof enough that there is more than one fool being born every minute.

No sir, I'm done with flying and prefer to travel by the humble train and on foot — it's good for both the planet, my wallet and my health. If God really wanted us to fly, he would have given us wings, or at least some tail feathers.

And don't let any economist — those practitioners of a dismal science — tell you that flying is good for the economy. For these chaps, all that matters is GDP; for them, it's good for the economy if you break your leg and have to go to an expensive hospital — it adds to national consumption/expenditure.

A pandemic is good also because Pfizer can then make another 40 billion dollars from its vaccines. The war in Ukraine and the genocide in Gaza are good for the global economy because they generate tens of billions for the arms industry. Overpopulation is good because it adds to the labour force, never mind if we can feed the additional billions or not. Economists are rectal endoscopists — they always take a narrow view of the world from the wrong end.

Make up your own minds, folks. Listen to the Devil's advocate — his services are pro-bono.

Avay Shukla is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at

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