Roundtable: The future of aviation in the UK


The Coalition Government cancelled the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport during its first week in office in accordance with the Conservative’s and Liberal Democrat’s separate manifesto commitments. However, the same Government supports the expansion of regional airports around the country. An industry spokesperson, three campaigners and a union representative give their thoughts on the future of aviation in the UK in terms of climate change, the economy, jobs and local communities.
 
 
Malcolm Robertson
Director of Communications, Heathrow Airport
 
Heathrow is an economic powerhouse. The largest single site employer in the UK, it employs 77,000 people with 100,000 more jobs across the country supported by what goes on inside the mini city near Windsor Castle.

Although half of Heathrow's employees live locally, the airport plays a massive role in the wider UK economy. It's the UK's only hub airport – meaning people from all over the world arrive to board flights to 180 different destinations in 90 countries.
 
Because it's the only place where UK travellers can fly long haul to places like Russia, India and China, Heathrow is a magnet for business opportunities. For major companies, transport links are absolutely essential when deciding where to locate – whether it's to support valuable distribution networks (Heathrow handles half of UK freight) or just to move people around.
 
Foreign investment from these firms creates thousands more jobs – half a million people in London alone are employed by such companies.
 
Of course, extra airport capacity would strengthen the government's case for building the UK’s trading links with global markets, but we accept that ministers are not going to sanction any new runways.
 
Many of the job opportunities come from our ambitious £1 billion-a-year improvement project. More than just a fancy facelift, it will see large parts of Heathrow totally rebuilt to offer a real 21st century facility. Baggage systems and security are being modernised to give people the experience they deserve and what this means is that you'll be able to be as proud of Heathrow as we are of the people who are making these improvements happen.
 
 
John Stewart
Chair, HACAN ClearSkies
 
The scrapping of plans for a third runway at Heathrow was an iconic victory for the campaigners and the biggest setback the aviation industry in the UK has ever experienced.  But the industry would be sensible to see it as a wake-up call that the soaring growth in recent years in this country can’t go on as before. Aviation’s contribution to climate change needs to be curbed. The noise which has been experienced by an increasing number of communities is unacceptable. Its tax-free fuel and exemption from VAT will not last forever as governments scramble for new sources of income. Above all, cheap oil, on which aviation is so dependent, will limit its growth. 
 
The future will be very different. Planes will be quieter and cleaner but that alone will not do the trick. The amount of flying – certainly in the rich world – will need to fall. Domestic and short-haul flights will be first for the chop. Long-haul flights will become more expensive. That will have big implications for the world’s economy since the plane, along with the ship, has become the workhorse of the globalised economy. A move to a more localised economic system is probably inevitable. Let’s start preparing for that now with a just transition of jobs from industries like aviation to those in green, sustainable industries.
 
 
Brendan Gold
National Officer, Civil Air Transport, T&G Unite
 
Unite is not blind to the effects aircraft and airports have on those under the flight paths as well as the environmental damage. But in today’s fast moving global economy, aviation is not a necessary evil – it is vital.
 
The UK’s population alone is currently increasing so fast that it is adding the population of Manchester each year. Global aviation growth is therefore inevitable.
 
Heathrow is the only airport in the UK that requires four stacking areas where aircraft waste fuel awaiting to land. For every minute an aircraft is sat on the ground it burns enough fuel to fly 90 miles. Therefore delays in departure and arrival due to the lack of capacity cause emissions. The idea that if you build it more will come does not hold water as the government has the final say over flight numbers.
 
The private sector is willing to pay for additional runways, so it will not cost the government a penny, yet growth is predicted to generate as much as £30.7 billion of economic benefit to the UK.
 
ConDem policy is one of taxing passengers out of the sky and making it more expensive to use London as a transfer point. Without transferring passengers’ routes soon become uneconomic resulting in a Beeching-style destruction of the network and the UK becoming an economic wasteland.
 
 
Dan Glass
Activist, Plane Stupid
 
Aviation is not just an environmental issue but about inequality too. Only 2-3% of the global population participate in international air travel. The richest fifth of the UK population take half of all flights, while the poorer half takes only a fifth. The UK taxpayer even subsidises the aviation industry by around £9 billion per year in fuel tax exemptions, while the poorest can’t even afford to heat their homes due to high fuel prices. Moreover, airports are generally located in low income areas so it is those who benefit the least from flying who suffer the noise, health effects and pollution planes produce.
 
All too often you hear someone say: “aviation expansion means more jobs”. A new report from the Campaign Against Climate Change ‘One Million Jobs Now’, provides the answer. It shows how over one million jobs could be created in ‘climate jobs’. These jobs would directly help to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we’re putting into the air whilst also providing a just transition for workers employed in high emission industries.
 
At a time when aviation expansion is rendering all our efforts to tackle climate change redundant we must take action. We have stopped Heathrow expansion and now we must stop regional airport expansion. When aviation expansion will take up more than the entire UK carbon budget by 2050, direct action to cut emissions is about taking responsibility and not deferring power.
 
 
Stephen Joseph OBE
Executive Director, Campaign for Better Transport
 
For years, we’ve forecast a year-on-year increase in flying and encouraged airports to expand to cater for it. The end result? Aviation is 13 per cent of the UK’s climate change impact, communities across the UK have to put up with extra noise, traffic and pollution, and we’re lumbered with a £20 billion tourism deficit.
 
Airport expansion is a terrible idea: for the environment, for local people and even for airport workers. Modern airports design out the need for a workforce, automating and de-skilling as much as can be got away with. That’s one of the reasons why the Terminal 5 opening went so catastrophically wrong: there were very few staff to pick up the pieces when the computers simultaneously hiccupped.
 
We have to stop expanding airports. But what’s the alternative? Investing in high speed rail can only ever be part of the answer; we need to invest in "low speed rail" – ordinary trains – and upgrade these as a cheap, low-carbon option. Investing in video-conferencing and broadband could also help people do business without having to travel as much.
 
But most importantly, we have to get the pricing right. Rail fares are too expensive, whilst aviation pays no fuel duty and plane tickets are exempt from VAT. Taxing aviation properly would raise £10 billion a year and using some of that money to make rail fares cheaper is a no-brainer, whilst the rest can go on protecting public services or funding improvements in the rail network.
 
 

*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. [email protected].

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