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The liberal case for aviation: debunked

24th March, 2015


Centre Forum, a leading liberal think tank with close ties to the Liberal Democrat party, has today published a report – The Liberal Case for Aviation – making the case for airport expansion in the South East. The concern at the heart of the report (which was funded by Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Let Britain Fly – the business campaign for expansion, and GTMC – a travel management company) is “how, and to what extent, one person’s freedom (in this case to fly, or to serve those who wish to fly) can be curtailed in the interests of protecting the freedom of another (to enjoy peace and quiet, clean air and to avoid catastrophic climate change).” As AEF’s core aim is to ensure aviation’s impacts on people and the environment are brought within sustainable limits, not to oppose flying, this seemed to us a useful starting point. Unfortunately, some of the main arguments in the report aren’t supported by the fact. We look at a few here:

1) Limits on runways (and thus on numbers of flights) drives up the cost of flying, restricting air travel to the wealthy elite while squeezing the poor out of our airports

The idea that it is a lack of new airport capacity that is making air travel an activity of the elite is plain wrong.

While the cost of taking a train, a coach or driving has significantly risen since 2000, the cost of flying fell 40% 2000-2010 and a further 4% up to 2013. Yet most of the growth in air traffic over the past 15 years or so has come from those on higher incomes taking extra holidays, not from people on low incomes flying for the first time, and there is no sign that that trend would change with a new runway. This is despite the fact that the cost of air travel is artificially low today – no fuel duty is paid for air travel and tickets are zero-rated for VAT.

There is evidence that adding a new runway could in fact increase fares. The Airports Commission has said that a new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick would require higher passenger fees to be added to tickets, and if CO2 emissions were to be tackled entirely through pricing, as Centre Forum suggests, rather than through controls on airport expansion, the price of tickets would need to rise massively.

2) Aviation emissions can be tackled entirely through economic measures such as carbon taxes or trading; restrictions on runway capacity are a crude and inefficient alternative

It is true that limiting runway capacity is only one method of limiting aviation greenhouse gas emissions and that it won’t be effective on its own. Emissions forecasts produced by the Airports Commission and Department for Transport show UK aviation emissions exceeding the level allowed for under the Climate Change Act even without building a new runway. But it is currently one of the few meaningful policy levers available to Government to limit aviation greenhouse gas emissions.

Globally, if left unchecked, emissions from aviation are expected to increase by up to 515%, with technology improvements failing to keep pace with passenger growth. This is also true at a UK level. The Committee on Climate Change have said that even after accounting for carbon intensity reductions from new aircraft, some uptake of biofuels and the inclusion of aviation in an emissions trading scheme, some demand management would still be required to constrain emissions to a level compatible with the Climate Change Act.

The report acknowledges that aviation emissions are significantly lower when capacity is constrained but argues that other measures would be more cost effective. However, what the report doesn’t consider is whether alternative policies can be delivered in the real world. For example, the authors recommend tackling emissions through economic measures such as inclusion in an emissions trading scheme. Analysis by the Airports Commission indicates that if a new runway is built, the cost of emitting a tonne of CO2 would have to rise from around £5 today to somewhere between £364 to £1316 in order to keep emissions at a sustainable level. No consideration is presented of how these kinds of prices could come about.

3) Following the consistent trend over the last half century, technological innovation will further reduce the noise of aviation

Aviation noise tends to be measured in terms of averages, and the most commonly used metric in the UK is the 57 decibel Leq contour. As the report itself illustrates, there was a significant shrinking of the population in the 57 Leq contour around London airports in the late 80s and early 90s related to the retirement of early, noisy aircraft. But since then there has been limited improvement, particularly over the past 15 years. Airlines themselves do not gain from operating quieter aircraft – there is no direct link with costs as there is with cutting CO2 emissions. So regulation is needed to force change towards quieter aircraft for any further noise reductions to be achieved.

This kind of regulation remains weak. The latest international standard, introduced in 2013, requires new aircraft types – that’s new designs – to be 7 EPNdB (Effective Perceived Noise in Decibels) quieter than the existing standard for Chapter 4 aircraft. However, that’s cumulative improvement measured across take-off, landing and on the ground meaning that the aircraft could be just 2-3 EPNdB quieter for each of those, barely perceptible to the human ear. That standard only comes in from 2017.

4) As long as the negative externalities can be addressed and airport capacity is embedded in wider environmental and social policy, the case for allowing airports to expand is strong

This seems to make a lot of sense. But in the absence of deliverable and meaningful alternative policies for meeting environmental limits, controlling airport capacity is one of the few policy levers available to Government – whether for limiting noise, constraining carbon emissions or tackling local air pollution.

In fact, attempts to incorporate all environmental ‘costs’ into the decision-making can leave the case for expansion looking shaky at best. The Airports Commission’s analysis of the direct economic impacts of expansion actually came out as potentially negative at Heathrow, once noise costs had been factored in. The Commission has so far, meanwhile, refused to publish what its cost benefit analysis would look like under a carbon capped scenario for any of its short-listed schemes because the carbon cost would dominate.