When Phileas Fogg sailed the Atlantic in Jules Verne’s ‘80 Days Around The World’, the journey time was nine days. And that was only by chopping up all the wood on the boat to serve as fuel and enable it to go faster. These days, however, it takes nine hours or less. That time reduction – the sense of making the world a smaller place – may be the biggest single achievement of aviation.

Suddenly things that seemed preposterous only a few decades ago have become relatively commonplace. In the US, commutes between the west and east coasts – something that took poor Phileas an entire week – are not unheard of.

I should know. Before I was appointed Nordic and Baltic correspondent at the Financial Times, I spent a year commuting weekly to my job in London… from Oslo. The most painless – and incidentally cheapest – part of the journey was the flying. (Thanks Ryanair, for the latter at least).

Even now, I was able to move my current job from its previous base in Stockholm to Oslo, where my family live, thanks to the fantastic network of air connections across the region. Stockholm by plane for me is an easier journey than the south of Norway is by car despite being several times farther away.

The great flattening of the world that air travel has created has huge benefits for business, boosting economic growth.

The Air Transport Action Group estimates that in 2010 the aviation industry had a global economic impact of $2.2 trillion. That means that if aviation were a country, it would rank as 19th on a global ranking in terms of economic growth.

Nearly 57 million jobs are supported by aviation worldwide. More than $5 trillion of cargo was carried by air, amounting to about a third of the value of total global trade but only 0.5 per cent of its volume. Perishables such as food or flowers have to be flown rather than put on a boat (where speeds are still more reminiscent of those in Phileas Fogg’s day).

The passenger figures are equally vast – in 2011, 2.8 billion people flew on aircraft a total of 5.1 trillion kilometres. Costs have come down. The ATAG report relates how in 1945 it took the average Australian the equivalent of 130 weeks’ wages to pay for a Sydney-London return air fare. Today, it is just 1.7 weeks.

The only way is up too: by 2030 ATAG estimates 5.9 billion passengers will be carried each year by airplanes with 82 million jobs dependent on aviation.

Today, air freight is helping some far-flung airports. The list of top airports for cargo includes some usual suspects such as Hong Kong and Shanghai. But it also has some more unusual names in it such as Memphis in the US, Incheon in South Korea, and Anchorage in Alaska.

The reach of air travel has also helped remote communities feel less out of touch. Fully 99.5 per cent of the Norwegian people are able to get to Oslo and back in a day, according to airline SAS, with hundreds of thousands of flights a year to ferry patients between their homes and hospitals in the country.

Aviation has helped foster cultural exchanges too. Half of all international tourists travelled using an airplane, according to the ATAG, and about 27 million jobs in tourism worldwide are directly and indirectly supported by people flying in. As American model Lauren Hutton said once: “Without travel I would have wound up a little, ignorant, white Southern female, which was not my idea of a good life.”

The cultural symbolism goes beyond that. One of the first images of an airplane I can remember is of The Starship, the airline rockers Led Zeppelin used to travel around the US in the 1970s. It may have seen its fair share of debauched behaviour but airplanes such as it were a big improvement from a Ford Dodge van for many bands and made a concept like a world tour a possibility.

Proof of the importance of aviation came when European air travel ground to a halt after the explosion of an Icelandic volcano in 2010. Estimates for the loss to GDP hit as much as $5 billion after 10 million passengers were delayed by the ash from Eyjafjallajökull. I experienced it myself, driving from the UK to northern Denmark over two days to “rescue” my family, only for flights to resume the next day.

As Slavoj Žižek, the Slovene philosopher, said in the volcano’s aftermath: “The socioeconomic impact of such a minor outburst is due to our technological development [air travel] – a century ago, such an eruption would have passed unnoticed. Technological development makes us more independent from nature. At the same time, at a different level, it makes us more dependent on nature’s whims.”

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Richard Milne

the Financial Times’ Nordic and Baltic correspondent

How often do you travel?

About 30 return flights a year for work and five privately.

To where do you travel?

Within the Nordic region, and back home to the UK.

What is your best memory from a trip?

Flying on Svalbard from Ny-Ålesund to Longyearbyen with the head of the IPCC and Norwegian foreign minister was both fun and spectacular.

What is your worst memory from a trip?

On my first ever flight – on Aeroflot in Communist times to Moscow – the condensation drops froze into icicles from the baggage holders while the emergency exit door was iced over. Not a good start for a 9-year-old.

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