Airport expansion ban could damage UK’s prosperity

A new report has warned the coalition government’s ban on airport expansion in the UK undermines the country’s global connectivity and competitiveness.

In its Rethinking Aviation report, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) says the UK risks lagging behind North European rivals that are currently boosting their hub runway capacity.

While the report acknowledges that unrestrained growth in demand for air travel without quick improvements in aircraft efficiency would damage the environment, it urges the government to ‘think carefully’ about the UK’s long-term airport infrastructure needs.

Heathrow Airport operates at 99 per cent capacity

‘We agree that the green agenda must be priority and realise that, when it comes to the UK’s airport infrastructure needs, there are some tough political and public choices,’ stated ICE aviation expert Simon Godfrey-Arnold. ‘But we believe there are choices that can secure the best outcomes for the environment, society and the economy.

‘Air transport and airport infrastructure are vital for the UK’s international connectivity and prosperity. As a trading island nation and popular tourist destination, we depend on our ability to connect with the rest of the world.’

Godfrey-Arnold claimed that Heathrow Airport, with its two runways, currently operates at 99 per cent of permitted capacity.

‘Journey times are increasing as aircraft become stacked up in queues, both on the ground and in the air,’ he said. ‘Capacity constraints could result in international carriers abandoning our hub airport in favour of larger and more economically attractive northern European hubs, such as Amsterdam Schiphol, which has five runways, and Frankfurt, which has three and a fourth in progress.’

The ICE report makes the case for international aviation becoming a ‘legacy’ carbon user in the short term because there is no other practical mode of travelling internationally. It asks government to shift focus on decarbonising the electricity-generation sector so that ground travel alternatives such as future high-speed rail are more environmentally friendly options.

According to transport expert Robert Noland, of Rutgers University in New Jersey, encouraging the use of high-speed rail is laudable but it is ‘no excuse’ to ignore emissions from aviation in the short term.

Noland pointed to a 2006 report conducted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research that showed that, if air travel in the UK increases per year by only half that experienced in 2004, the aviation sector will account for 50 per cent of emissions in 2050. Without swift action to curtail aviation growth, the Tyndall Centre warned, all other UK sectors will need to ‘almost completely decarbonise’ by 2050 to maintain carbon-dioxide levels below 550 parts per million by volume, which is necessary to avoid ‘dangerous climate change’.

Today’s aircraft are 70 per cent more fuel efficient

Matthew Knowles, a spokesman for ADS, formerly the Society of British Aerospace Companies, said the aviation industry has taken this into consideration and remains confident that, despite increases in demand for air travel, it will be able to curb emissions with more efficient aeroplanes.

‘If you look at historical process, an aircraft today is 70 per cent more fuel efficient than 50 years ago, so that means it produces 70 per cent less CO2,’ he said.

Noland agreed that aircraft is becoming more fuel efficient, but stressed that it’s not enough to keep up with the increase in air travel.

‘It’s going to take another 20, 30, or 40 years until the fleet turns over,’ he said.

Knowles said the aviation industry is looking into more immediate ways of reducing emissions by supporting initiatives such as the EC led ‘Single European Sky,’ which aims to integrate Europe’s  27 national air-traffic-control networks into one. He claimed that this will lead to straighter flight paths and increased efficiency.

‘Europe could quicly deliver a 12 per cut in CO2 emissions by flying in a straight line,’ he said.

Noland remains skeptical and said the ‘single sky’ initiative will only cut emissions if air travel does not increase as a result.

‘It might make a given flight more efficient, but it also encourages more flights,’ he said. ‘It would at least offset that 12 per cent number to some degree.’

Godfrey-Arnold said that the ICE report does not suggest letting the aviation industry off the hook. He stated: ‘In the long term, it must step up aircraft innovation and replacement rates to fully contribute to emissions-reduction targets.’

The report stressed that the only way to encourage surface-transport alternatives such as high-speed rail is to make it competitive with air travel on price, flexibility and connectivity. It has called on measures such as the introduction of a minimum carbon price, which could help curb demand for air travel by raising the price of flying, therefore making high-speed rail a potentially cheaper option.

Godfrey-Arnold said the Department for Transport’s National Policy Statement on aviation, which is expected to be finalised in 2011, will present a timely opportunity to consider the UK’s long-term airport-infrastructure needs.

‘ICE is keen to work with the government and facilitate a sensible debate,’ he said.