Whenever the dust finally settles from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, there will be some stern lessons to absorb from the crisis which has seen Europe's skies fall silent. The most obvious is that no matter how much the airline lobby protests, we need to reduce our reliance on this fragile and vulnerable form of transport. From stranded passengers to the threat of empty supermarket shelves, the disruption caused by the giant ash cloud gave us a taste of what could happen in the event of, say, another major terrorist attack - and what will happen when the oil starts to run out. It would be plain foolhardy to pile more and more of our eggs into this increasingly rickety basket. And this crisis has led people to question every aspect of our addiction to aviation. Why do we have so many internal flights instead of a high-speed rail network? Does it make sense, when we desperately need to cut carbon emissions, to fly in fruit and veg from Africa? Do all these businesspeople really need to spend all their time jetting off to conferences when they could stay at home and hold a videoconference? Not to mention the values that won't pop up on a corporate balance sheet - like the fact that thousands living under flight paths can hear birdsong and breathe clean air for the first time in decades.
So the New Economics Foundation (NEF) showed faultless timing in picking yesterday to release its report warning that a third runway at Heathrow would hit Britain in the pocket to the tune of £5 billion or more. That's a bold claim when the government says Heathrow expansion would bring in £5.5bn. But ministers seem to have plucked their figure from the air - while the NEF's study has, crucially, put a price on issues like noise pollution and air quality. As a result it's the strongest argument yet against Heathrow expansion, which New Labour stubbornly continues to champion in the face of mounting opposition. So unpopular is airport expansion that even the other two big parties have been forced to oppose it - sort of. Tory and Lib Dem policy amounts to "no new runways in areas where people might vote for us." But neither party convinces on the other pressing issues - modernising our transport infrastructure and maintaining public spending to ward off a double-dip recession. The fallout from the Iceland eruption has brought that prospect a little bit closer, too. Thousands of airline workers could join Britain's ever-growing dole queues, threatening to tip us into a second recession.
The government can't afford not to come to their aid. But any bail-out for the airlines should come with strings attached - like a measure of democratic control over the industry and a clear understanding that the future lies away from air travel, just as soon as we can wean Britain off aviation without destroying thousands of jobs. We can't expect new Labour to impose conditions like that, not when it had the chance and failed to do something similar with the banks. Nor can we be sure it will make good on the limited pledges it has made of investment in high-speed rail. Nor is it likely to pay the slightest bit of notice to the NEF's study - unless we send a loud and clear message at the ballot box on May 6. In some constituencies that will mean voting Labour, where there's a principled candidate. In some constituencies it will mean voting Communist, or Green - both of which have promised to rein in aviation - or whichever other party is standing up and fighting on the issue. But in every constituency it means telling the big three parties that they're just not good enough - that we want more radical action on transport than they're prepared to give us. We can't afford to wait for catastrophic climate change, or another massive natural disaster, to take that action.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.