Clouded visions

Expansion of air travel in the UK will not lead to increased emissions because of new technologies in the aviation industry.

The claim from the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC) was in response to criticism from the new head of the government’s green watchdog.

In an interview published yesterday, Will Day, the incoming chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, censured the government for its decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow. He also suggested raising the costs of flights to reduce air travel.

Matthew Knowles, a spokesman for the SBAC, said Day has not taken into consideration how new technologies such as improved aircraft and engine design and smarter air traffic management will play a role in reducing emissions. Similarly, a third runway would lead to increased flight efficiencies, leading to a lowering of emissions.

‘The Department for Transport predicts a three-fold rise in passenger demand by 2050,’ he added. ‘Our research demonstrates that despite that three-fold increase, emissions from UK aviation will actually fall back to 2000 levels by 2050.’

Knowles said air traffic management is currently based on ground-based radar, but in the future it will be satellite based or possibly even guided by unmanned aerial vehicles.

The goal, he added, will see aircraft that fly along more direct flight paths. The reason this is a challenge in the European Union, he said, is that Europe is the same size in terms of land mass and area as the US. Yet while the US has one air traffic control system, Europe has 27.

‘When you fly from one [European country] to the other you can’t really fly in a straight line,’ said Knowles. ‘So you’ve got to head off in all different directions, burning extra fuel, creating extra emissions.’

Knowles added that the third runway is necessary at the overburdened Heathrow to reduce the number of planes that produce emissions while sitting idle waiting for take off or circling the airport waiting for a landing slot.

Aviation currently contributes six per cent of CO2 emissions in the UK.

While it is not the largest contributor, Knowles said the aviation industry realises it must work harder at reducing emissions.

‘If you look at what the environmentalists are looking for around reduced CO2 emissions, the airlines are actually asking for the same thing but for a different reason,’ he added. ‘They want to reduce their fuel burn because fuel is their second largest cost. The largest cost is staff.’

While low-cost airlines have made flying more affordable and increased the number of flights in the air, Knowles said, they are unfairly demonised for their contribution to emissions.

‘Low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet are operating very new aircraft,’ he added. ‘So when people demonise Ryanair, they do that unfairly because its operating really new low-emission aircraft.’

Knowles said new aircraft such as the A380 have an efficiency comparable to a hybrid car and if the trajectory of efficiency continues then aircraft will be even better in the future. ‘Compared to 50 years ago, an aircraft is 70 per cent more fuel efficient than it was,’ he added.

The next big task for the aviation industry, Knowles said, will be to replace the thousands of Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s currently in operation.

‘Boeing and Airbus are currently working on their designs to replace that aircraft in the future,’ he added. ‘That market is estimated at being worth around $1tn (£603bn) over the next 20 years. Obviously the UK sector wants to get involved with that. We don’t want to miss that opportunity.’

Siobhan Wagner