Breaking news: Air India orders 470 planes to Airbus and Boeing

Legitimacy, Impact and Fair travel

Air India breaks a historic record by promising to buy 250 Airbus and 220 Boeing aircrafts [6]. Airbus, Boeing, Macron, Modi, and Biden are elated. But what about the others ? Does everyone consider this ‘good news’ ? Will most if not all stakeholders benefit from this 70-billion-dollar deal ?

According to the UN, 840 million people are surviving on less than 2 dollars a day. Given this inequity, it shouldn’t throw you off-guard to learn that only 1% of households constitute those who travel by 45% of all flights in India [2]. The aviation sector caters to the elite while it disadvantages others, especially marginalized individuals who suffer the detrimental impacts of socio-ecological injustices catalysed by aviation manifesting through the loss of indigenous livelihoods, habitats, increased pollution, health problems, and climate catastrophes among innumerable others.  Furthermore, the legitimacy of this deal is also contentious given that the elected representatives and media in India have failed to initiate public discourse on this earth-altering deal. Our review of 100 debates and 400 questions related to Civil Aviation raised by Members of Parliament in the House of Representatives known as the ‘Lok Sabha’ during the last one year (2022-2023) corroborates and affirm our assessment that the issue of Air India needing a spectacular infusion of aircrafts was not part of transparent political discourse. It appears to be incontrovertible that this order was not the outcome of a credible transparent legislative process that upheld and furthered the general interests of the Indian citizenry. The genesis and economic imperative that this order alludes to lie elsewhere in more elusive areas of industrial-capitalist power and opaque decision making which excludes ecological and climate justice. The nature of this ‘good news’ incontestably demands scrutiny [7].

On reviewing an Indian national newspaper, the ‘Times of India’ for articles related to civil aviation, for the year(Feb 2022- Feb 2023), approximately 1123 articles related to Air India were found. Out of these articles, about 19 articles talked majorly about increasing the number of fleet and trips, expanding the airline through tie-ups and replacing old fleets. Another 6 articles were pre-announcement about expansion plans of Air India to buy aircrafts from Airbus and Boeing, one of them largely talking about the fuel efficiency of the new planes. Remaining articles were mainly related to growth, technological solutions, refurbishing fleets, rising fares, Air India operations like delay of flights, public issues during flight, emergency landing due to technical glitches, etc [15]. No references were found to any independent think-tank research or even a government white paper on the subject that underscored the need for this meteoric increase in fleet size of Air India. The media is clearly prioritizing other aspects of the deal, such as its economic and political implications, over its environmental impact.

Good news for who ?

From one point of view, aviation workers might consider the order as a good sign for their jobs, but they also understand that they will have to work harder and longer to make it possible. On that matter, Airbus is writing that work cadences need to rise. Given the existing competition-obsessed scenario, their counterparts from Boeing will have to do the same. From this perspective, it’s already ‘not that good’ news for workers who are just going back from the big covid crisis to the loss of relatively good working conditions. The aviation industry and decision-makers in France have a similar narrative: “We are providing good jobs”, and “We are providing progress and profit for you all”, but who are the ‘all’ they are referring to? The Occitanie region, where among others Airbus is based, is highly dependent on the aviation industry but is one of the poorest regions of France [16]. It is questionable if this order will truly benefit ‘all’ or just a socio-economically privileged few.  

Air India’s order also represents about 1 billion tons of CO2 equivalent that will be generated over the following 30 years (lifetime of airplanes, all planes emitted 1 GigatonCO2 equivalent in 2019 [17]). This deal cannot be ‘good news’ for Indians, Europeans, Americans, and any other humans and non-humans who will have to face the present and future impacts of air pollution. With this context and with the knowledge that India currently occupies the position of the third largest polluter in the world [3], it is vital to question the credibility of a deal that encourages a lifestyle that favours air travel and feeds the greed of a few by paving the way for the expansion of an industry that favours unidimensional growth, promotes disharmony and side-lines the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants. 

Multiplying and offsetting are not the answer to climate chaos mitigation.

There has been an 18% increase in the number of people traveling by Air India during 2015-2020. An additional 470 planes would mean increased flying between airports in India and other countries across Europe and Asia in the coming years. The effect of the Air India deal on global actions aimed at minimizing the detrimental impacts of aviation indubitably warrants that decision-makers and other stakeholders introspect the impact of greed-driven endeavours and recognize the interconnectedness of aviation-related projects across the globe. 

Most European countries are members of the ‘Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation’ (CORSIA) including France, Spain, and Germany (co-owners of Airbus). India has circumvented the pilot and first phase of CORSIA by promising to participate in CORSIA only after 2027. France, Spain, and Germany who have been participating in CORSIA’s pilot phase since 2021 are yet to demonstrate coherence toward aviation ‘reduction’ action [4]. It is of pivotal importance to recognise that carbon ‘offsetting’ is the new alibi for countries and industries who excuse themselves while continuing to pollute the earth. It is time we realize that carbon offsetting is not warding off environmental collapse, it is accelerating it. It is appalling to contemplate the humongous amount of land that will be needed to support carbon offsetting to compensate for the perils caused by the new aircrafts. In a living on a planet with finite resources, offsetting cannot and should not be an option. The focus therefore must be on ‘reduction’ rather than ‘offsetting’ [5].

The perspectives shared so far might elicit some to ask – ‘Are you suggesting that every plane must stay grounded ? Have you not witnessed how covid threatened the aviation and tourism industries ? What do you want at the end ?’

We are of course not suggesting that the aviation industry shut down in totality and that aviation workers lose their jobs. Neither are we suggesting that people sit at home and completely avoid travelling. But we do not favor aviation growth either. Something in-between is possible.

‘Fair Travel’ as a new model

Economic growth was on track in 2022 even with ‘only’ 68.5% of world air traffic as compared to 2019 [11]. This indicates that economies can function without augmenting air traffic and rising emissions and is a call for us to share the sky by reducing flying with a ‘Fair Travel’ objective, travel wisely and develop and maintain railway and bus networks. 

Rail travel is one of the most accessible, affordable, least-polluting (based on calculating the emission impacts of other modes of travel on a passenger-kilometer basis) and widely used modes of travel after walking and cycling, it is crucial to evaluate the potential of the railways in contributing to fair travel, in the Indian context.  23 million passengers per day are transported by the Indian railways, which is the 3rd largest transport network in Asia [13]. The Indian railways are the largest employer in India, with over 1.23 million employees [14]. In addition to providing direct employment opportunities, it also generates significant indirect employment through its supply chain, vendors, and contractors. The Indian aviation sector, on the other hand, is a relatively newer industry in the country. It employs around 250,000 people directly and indirectly. The employment generated by Indian Railways is significantly higher than that of the Indian aviation sector [9]. Additionally, the skill sets required for employment in both industries differ significantly. The Indian railways employ a large number of skilled and unskilled laborers, while the aviation sector requires specialized training for pilots, cabin crew, and other technical roles. With the availability of only 21.2% of skilled labor [10], ginormous investment in the aviation sector which is a laggard in terms of generating employment per unit of economic input demands scrutiny. Similar analyses can be undertaken for other pathways that can support moving the ‘Fair Travel’ way. 

The IPCC report released in March 2023 warns that only swift and drastic action can avert irrevocable damage to our planet [1]. The report is an alarm for every country and sector to fast-track climate efforts sooner than later. Our world needs immediate climate action on all fronts. After the covid crisis, the aviation and tourism industry had the opportunity to metamorphose by adopting new economic models and sustainable pathways which are not linked to air traffic growth and mass tourism. But decision-makers missed it and are now putting both industries under threat again, given that thinking of infinite growth is highly risky in a finite world. There is a need therefore to think beyond the box. The energy and money to build old-fashioned planes should be utilized to build our future rather than to accelerate climate breakdown and augment other injustices. Imagine a mega historical order of trains from Narendra Modi to Alstom! Imagine a mega historical order of very small electric vehicles from Emmanuel Macron to TATA! This would have been better! But no, we are stuck in prehistory with old fashion planes and business models… It’s a shame that our decision-makers are stuck in the 90s. The future must favour low-emission and mindful travel among other sustainable alternatives… not twice more airplanes ! 

C Balance with PAD collective


  14. L’essentiel sur… l’Occitanie | Insee
  15. Aviation and Climate, a literature review to make future aircraft sustainable (