Air Fare: Is Fresh Air Becoming a Luxury Good?

Remember the good old days, when the best things in life were free? Now the very stuff we breathe may come at a premium.

As fresh air becomes more rare, it becomes, well, rarefied. Last year, a British company called Aethaer began selling “heritage-style glass jars” of air collected from various bucolic British locales, from “wild untouched meadows to wind-kissed hilltops,” for $100 a pop. While Aethaer’s founder claims it’s foraging air in part to increase awareness about pollution, he also admits there’s a market for it, and not just as Dadaist objet d’art. Shortly after the product was announced, a factory in China ordered 100 jars. Indeed, the air in the People’s Republic has become so unhealthy that respiratory problems kill an estimated 4,000 people each day, which helps to explain why people are willing to pay for just a few gulps of a healthier alternative.

Aethaer has a Canadian competitor, Vitality Air, that harvests its air from the Canadian Rockies and compresses it into spray cans to provide “dozens of clean breaths for use by your entire family.” (A $23 can of “Banff” promises about 80 “shots” of air.) Vitality’s co-founder Troy Paquette has said he hopes future climate talks will obviate the need for such products but remarked that “if China remains looking like it does right now, then absolutely I can see clean air becoming a commodity.”

The problem isn’t limited to China, of course. As ridiculous as paying a premium for a lungful of canned air might sound, Aethaer and Vitality are targeting what is, sadly, a booming sector. The World Health Organization now calls air pollution “the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” contributing to 3 million deaths each year (more than twice the global death rate from auto accidents). With toxic smog reaching emergency levels in cities from Mumbai to Paris recently, our enjoyment of something we thought was plentiful and free is increasingly at risk. No wonder fresh air is becoming a luxury good: It’s plain old supply and demand.

Evidence of this trend can be seen worldwide. Visionaire, a 35-story condominium loft building in New York’s Battery Park City with units priced at $2 million-plus, circulates fresh air to individual apartments (part of the homeowners’ association fee, one suspects). Jing Yue Hui, a dim sum restaurant near Shanghai, caused a stir in 2015 for charging its patrons for clean air. In Caracas, Venezuela, Simón Bolívar International Airport introduced a charge of $13 per passenger to fund its new air-conditioning system, which the airport claimed would help “eliminate contaminants in the environment and protect health.” Hotels like the Ellis in Atlanta offer “fresh air” floors (usually at an extra cost), where all mattresses and pillows are sealed, carpets are specially deep-cleaned, all hard and soft room surfaces are treated to remove dust and germs, and every room and even the hallway have an air-filtering machine that runs 24 hours a day.

Fresh air and sunlight have long been tied to quality of life and marketed to the leisure class (think spas and summering and sanitoriums in the Swiss Alps). But this idea of clean air as a premium product is newer. “Not long after 9/11,” says David Gissen, author of Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis, “projects emerged like the Cesar Pelli–designed Solaire, a luxury green apartment building with multiple levels of air filtration—a feature prominently advertised by the developers as a green amenity that enabled them to mollify the fears of potential residents who would be anxious about moving into an area so close to the World Trade Center site, with its questionable air quality.”

Gissen adds: “I don’t think architects or engineers consciously think of themselves as transforming clean air into a luxury amenity. But I do think that this is the obvious result.”

It doesn’t have to be. Some companies have started thinking on a grander scale about the social benefits of clean air. Based in Connecticut, AtmosAir is working on improving air quality in sports arenas to bolster athletic performance, office buildings to increase productivity, and hospitals to cut down the risk of infection. The global architecture firm Gensler recently issued a report called “Design for Polluted and Toxic Environments,” concluding that it was imperative, no matter how challenging, to reduce both indoor air pollution and energy consumption in its buildings. Airlabs, a London-based start-up, has installed filters that lower the level of nitrogen oxide from exhaust fumes at London bus stops and subway stations, to better the pedestrian experience.

This last example points to a more hopeful model: fresh air not as private amenity but as public good. And free.

Related: For how America is helping to forge a more sustainable future, read the article »

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