The Key To Escape From Thailand?

Gordon Campbell on the escape flights from Thailand, and on taxing people for flying long distances.

While the Australians are laying on special Qantas flights out of Thailand in order to rescue their citizens from a situation that could turn violent at short notice, our government is crossing its fingers that it can get the circa 200 New Zealanders out, before things turn ugly.

This is quite some gamble with peoples’ lives. Currently, as John Key told a press conference yesterday , “ the first option” for any passengers wishing to exit Thailand is via the small military base at Utapao, 140 kilometres southeast from Bangkok, which requires a two and half hour road journey. Judging by the chaotic scenes at Utapao screened on al Jazeera television last night, many travelers could be facing up to a five day delay in getting flights. The Malaysian news service Bernama is also reporting that the lack of facilities and extortionate taxes at Utapao are also an issue :

“Due to lack of facilities at the naval base airport of Utapao, the Thai authorities declined to grant more slots to airlines, which are struggling to cope with thousands of stranded passengers and growing demand to leave the country as fear of coup and violence rises. There are only three check-in counters and one luggage scanner at the airport, but authorities are making it more difficult for the frustrated passengers who had to fork another 400 baht for airport taxes despite already paying 700 baht in their original tickets.

Clearly, with landing slots now at a premium at Utapao, New Zealand may have missed its opportunity to get a rescue flight up and running, even if we wanted to. The more nimble Australians have arranged two Qantas flights now, operating out of Phuket to Singapore. To some extent, the cost of New Zealand putting on a rescue flight has been allowed to outweigh the risks and inconvenience to the travelers caught up in the crisis. As Key told his press conference, there had been “a cost element” involved in the decision not to emulate what the Australians had done. “But obviously, if that was the only alternative we would pursue it”.

The equally obvious problem with that approach is that if – as the government expects – the situation in Thailand does deteriorate, it will then be virtually impossible to mount a rescue mission.

2. Flights of fancy. It has been a bad fortnight of aviation news for the new government and for Air New Zealand, and not simply due to the Airbus crash. While Key was in Britain, his meeting with Gordon Brown was dominated by news of a British plan ( phasing in from late 2009) to penalize air travellers based on how far they fly. Key was concerned about the large boost in duties set to apply in future to people flying to this country from the United Kingdom, and the likely impact on tourism.

Bad news for our tourism industry ? Yes, but the plan could have been worse. Though it is dressed up as an environmental measure, the four bands of distance that set the relevant levies all cut out at a maximum of 6,000 miles. Meaning : if you are going from London to Auckland you pay only as much as if you were flying a lesser distance, from London to say, Capetown. In reality, the extra distance to New Zealand is not being savagely penalized, If you are flying from London to Cyprus for instance, you will pay only 10 pounds less than if you were flying all the way on to Auckland. As the travel writer Simon Calder says in the Independent newspaper

“New Zealand’s government will be relieved that passengers heading for that beautiful but distant nation will pay only £55 in duty for a flight of 24 hours or more, just £10 more than that four-hour hop to Larnaca. Yet ours expects us to believe that the odd tenner will make travellers think twice about visiting the far side of the world.”

In other words, Key would be well advised not to attack the plan on its handling of New Zealand – which, if anything, seems relatively benign. The better line of attack would be to stress that like the “food miles” argument, the current plan is flawed on environmental grounds. As Calder points out, private jets and air transport do not get hit by the change in air tax – even though, in terms of environmental impact per passenger, private jets routinely do more damage to the atmosphere. Moreover, the real damage is done in take-off and landing activity – not in the distance travelled. As Calder says :

The departure and climb phase of a Boeing 737 causes much the same harm whether a plane is flying 201 or 2001 miles. To reflect this, a fairly high tax should be applied to every flight, with marginal increases according to distance. In fact, the Government has done the opposite with a very low “entry-level” tax.

The impact on New Zealand would also be lessened if the peculiar way the distance was calculated – from capital city to capital city – was amended to eliminate the glaring advantage that this gives to Americans returning home and to Britons visiting the Land of the Free. A London to Washington DC distance calculation conveniently overlooks the fact that many travellers from London are going to California, or even to Hawaii – and thus they should be in the same distant and costly tax band as tourists flying to New Zealand.

Being both Tourism Minister and a self declared aviation nut Key will need to fight this one. Making sure we are fighting it on the right grounds though, is crucial. We better get good at it. Because however clumsy and unfair such taxes may seem to us on the far side of the globe, environmental taxes are the wave of the future.