Slaves to International Comity

By Andrew Charlton, FRAeS

What if William Wilberforce had decided there was a need for international comity before campaigning to abolish slavery? At best, it would have been abolished about half a century later, after the American Civil War – assuming that without the UK and others acting, that war happened at all. For the UK to strike out alone meant that its traders would suffer.  The UK’s colonial agricultural industries – largely cotton and sugar – argued, loudly, they would suffer because labour costs would increase [1]. The domestic situation of the middle and upper class would be ever so slightly inconvenienced – a common political hurdle. The abolition of slavery has familiar resonances for aviation.  

In fairness, Haiti (when it declared independence from France), then the northern states of the US, abolished slavery in 1804. Without downplaying their courage, neither were slave economy market-movers. The UK outlawed the slave trade industry, at least for UK traders in 1807. Enslaved workers in the colonies were freed, over more loud campaigning by vested interests, in 1833. The US abolished slavery by enacting the 13th amendment, after a certain amount of fuss and bother, in 1865. In other words, it took about 50 years to properly action the Right Thing – and it took a big player to act.

Now, overlay that history with aviation carbon neutrality. The parallels are striking, with two obvious exceptions. First, there is no William Wilberforce. Many small states have tried to make a stand, but no large state is brave enough to act or to compel action for fear of the economic harm it may cause. The British colonialists’ arguments are very familiar; their production would cost more compared to that of landholders from non-abolitionist states. In the deep south of the USA, plantation owners would rage that their business model would no longer stack up. They would lose connectivity.

The other non-parallel is that there was no ICAO for the slaving industry. Had there been, you can imagine the arguments that would have been tabled; the calls for international comity would have been deafening. The incumbents, all of whom were exactly that because of the way things were done, not because of the way things should be done, would have held sway. It is too much to contemplate but impossible to ignore. Team Counterfactual could have a field day. Oh, wait, no, it would look a lot like the situation in aviation now.  There would be many serious faces, even more serious talking, and huge commitments to meaningless ‘aspirational goals’ to Do Something at some point a long way into the future.

There is even a lesson to be learnt in the thirty-year gap between domestic and slave trading abolition and then the colonial implementation of a ban. Does that not sound like the sort of time it will take to phase out existing technologies and fuels? To their credit, the slavers did not form an orderly queue for free money, unlike the airlines.

Those who try to argue that there were good people on both sides of the argument or that it was just the way things were done and had community support were simply wrong.  Wilberforce did not dream this concept up; there was already a strong body of good people on one side who wanted something done. He was influential because he was a member of the UK Parliament. We have people in positions of power and authority in aviation, but we hide behind an apparent need for an ‘international comity’ because we fear the consequences – to the incumbents. A plague on all their houses.  

Andrew Charlton is the Managing Director of Aviation Advocacy.  This piece was first published in the Aviation Intelligence Reporter, its flagship publication.



M. Taylor, “Never forget that the British political and media elite endorsed slavery. It took radical campaigners to end it,” The Guardian, 30 January 2023. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 29 January 2024].