My research looks at aeromobilities issues and ‘airspace productions’ in Singapore. One of the things I emphasize is the need to take into account the viewpoints of particular nation-states when studying air transport. Indeed, civil aviation is an intensely nationalist affair, and is frequently articulated in statist logics as well.
This is where it can become rather (geo)political and interesting. Airspace, in the first instance, is not simply made up of a seamless hunk of sky filled with lines that lead from one place to another. Like the political jigsaw puzzle we see on land, it comprises adjoining and interacting sovereign ‘territories’, which are further overlain with air traffic control zones that may or may not coincide with the former. Needless to say, like their earthly counterparts, they are also unstable and subject to contestation.
I briefly touched on the geopolitical nature of airspace, and its effects on mobilities, in my recent Political Geography Guest Editorial on aviation and climate change discourses surrounding the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS). In a show of European leadership in environmental matters, the EU ETS was expanded in 2008 to include aviation as part of the region’s carbon trading program for the very first time. From 2012, all airlines doing business in the EU would be required to surrender permits to Brussels annually in amounts equal to their carbon emissions for that year.
This all sounds environmentally friendly enough, except that non-European countries are crying foul. Because carbon emissions will be calculated on the basis of the entire journey to/from the EU, rather than within European airspace, global powers like the US, China, India and Russia are questioning the EU’s right to “unilaterally” tax airlines registered in their domains for flights that may occur mostly outside Europe. In addition, air hubs situated at the far reaches of the continent worry that they will be disadvantaged in the business of connecting traffic, if the carbon tax is habitually lower for ports closest to Europe, like Dubai and Istanbul. In the face of such dilemmas, the aviation component of the EU ETS was suspended in November 2012 to buy time for further negotiations, but it is unlikely a compromise will be arrived at by the September 2013 deadline.
I think there are important questions of (national, environmental, mobile etc.) security to be asked that exceed quotidian experiences of being just an air passenger or a pilot. Wrapped up in this story is a number of different (but equally valid) political refrains that have a real effect on policies and mobile practices. Should airspace be considered pollutable and hence subject to green governance (European-style)? Should it be treated as a matter of non-negotiable sovereignty in the face of global climate change? Are the livelihoods of small states dependent on their air hubs adequately accounted for in “market-distorting” measures like the EU ETS? While there are no easy answers, academics would do well to take heed of this plurality of opinions, and the refusal of aviation, even before it moves, to be reduced to any single template.
I want to quickly add that aerial politics is oftentimes transnational as much as it is nationally inflected. This paradox is something that I constantly grapple with too, in that although I focus on the perspective of a single country, my analysis should not be nationally sited or contained. Indeed, recent events pertaining to another form of ‘air transport’—the terrible transboundary haze in my home country—have shown that the air is an extremely (or in this case breathlessly) fluid entity, medium, carrier, and resource that is more prone to elude than it can be pinned down. In a world accustomed to relatively immobile political borders, this is also something that will continue to enthrall, if not befuddle, for a long, long time.
Weiqiang Lin is a PhD student at Royal Holloway working on the production of Singapore’s airspace as well as mobilities, urban transport, migration and transnationalism in the Asian context.