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Meet the commercial airline pilot turned climate activist

The aviation industry gave Todd Smith the wings to jet off and see the world. What he saw on his travels alarmed him, and inspired him to take action

The aviation industry gave Todd Smith the wings to jet off and see the world. What he saw on his travels alarmed him, and inspired him to take action

With his pilot uniform on, you might assume Todd Smith is about to fly somewhere exotic. But he has no plans to take to the skies. Two years ago, Smith failed to return to his career for environmental reasons, and the only reason he wears his uniform now is when he’s discussing the climate emergency at protests and talks. 

It wasn’t how he expected things to turn out. Inspired by watching the Red Arrows twirl when he was a boy, Smith aspired to be a pilot. He spent more than £100,000 on training before taking the helm at planes for the likes of Wow Air and Thomas Cook. 

But seeing the film Cowspiracy (a 2014 documentary about the environmental impact of animal agriculture) kickstarted a journey of eco-awareness. “I transitioned to veganism and became more aware of the environment and the impact of consumer choices,” says Smith. 

After his medical licence to fly was temporarily revoked in 2018 after he contracted Lyme disease, he backpacked across south-east Asia and South America. As he travelled
and witnessed first-hand the impact of climate change and mass tourism, Smith felt a growing sense of unease. 

A year later, his then-employer, Thomas Cook, collapsed. With more time on his hands and Covid grounding the aviation industry, Smith took the chance to rethink his career. 

“I felt a growing sense of eco-anxiety,” he recalls. “Seeing the airline industry want to increase its targets, which was in the opposite direction to what mainstream science was recommending, I felt a sense of betrayal. How could I prioritise my passion for flying when we need to collectively tackle the biggest existential threat to humanity?” 

Aviation

‘I felt a growing sense of anxiety seeing the airline industry increase its targets,’ says Smith. Image: Helena Dolby

Instead of returning to aviation, Smith poured his energy into setting up Safe Landing, an organisation for climate- concerned aviation workers. Members include those who are employed by airlines and airports, as well as engineers and factory workers. 

The group makes four demands of industry leaders: honesty about the ‘total environmental impact of flying’; that they be realistic about the limits of technology to solve the challenge; transparency about the regulations required to reduce emissions; and that they have a plan that accounts for this and supports workers towards sustainable long-term employment. 

Smith, who is based in Reading, England, also joined Extinction Rebellion (XR), becoming a spokesperson for the global direct-action group. “Extinction Rebellion has been a lifeline for me in building a community with people who really understand the reality of the climate situation,” he says. 

Aviation is the fastest growing source of emissions

The fastest growing source of emissions? That will be aviation, according to the EU. Image: William Hook

Smith describes his new stance as “not something that goes down well with the public, friends or family”, so he tries to explain his motivations while remaining sympathetic to where people are in their understanding of the climate emergency. 

Movements such as XR and the way the likes of Greta Thunberg have been able to mobilise so many on climate related issues make Smith feel optimistic about the future – if we act quickly. 

“It is entirely possible to have an economic system that values people’s health and wellbeing [as well as GDP] and acts on the climate challenge,” he says. “We need to reconnect as a community. All solutions are achievable if we work together on this as a collective; we often see the best in humanity in a crisis.” 

This article is the first in our ‘job swap’ series. Over the coming weeks Positive News will profile individuals who swapped high-carbon careers for environmentally minded jobs.

Main image: Helena Dolby 

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