Stand up now to aviation’s spin over Heathrow
9.12.2009 (Evening Standard)
by Andrew Neather
There’s a rich irony in Lord Adonis’s fresh trumpeting of the case for a third
runway at Heathrow.
The Transport Secretary hailed this week’s report from the Committee on Climate
Change as proof that airport expansion can go ahead without breaching emissions
But to do so, the rest of our economy will need to hit far tougher targets, so
that greenhouse gas emissions from aviation rise from 5% of the total today to
25% in 2050.
Indeed this week UK negotiators at the Copenhagen UN summit, soon to be joined by Adonis’s Cabinet colleague, Climate Change Secretary
Ed Miliband, were trying to hammer out targets for slashing our emissions.
Yet again, the aviation industry risks being the tail that wags the dog of Britain’s
climate change policy.
In fact, the CCC’s report isn’t as gung-ho as Adonis implies. It does not take
a view on a third Heathrow runway.
It warns that the UK needs to limit the expansion of aviation. And its calculations
that passenger numbers can keep growing while emissions are held down assume a
lot: that the industry will slash emissions through more fuel-efficient planes,
that we will have carbon-pricing, that government will splurge money on high-speed
That’s before we take into account other related pollution. Environment Agency
chief Lord Smith warned yesterday that the Heathrow area is already too polluted
to consider expanding it.
But airports operator BAA and British Airways aren’t going to let that sort of detail get in the way of their steamroller
Well-padded with former government spin doctors, these companies have long enjoyed
disproportionate influence in Whitehall.
And they would rather people – other industries, for instance – didn’t ask why
on earth aviation gets this sort of preferential treatment.
The UK – and especially London, its business hub – needs air connections. Let’s not pretend, though, that the
aviation industry’s projections for its own growth, or for Heathrow, have much
to do with that.
Just 25% of flights from the UK are business-related. Heathrow is now operating near capacity.
But that’s primarily because of British Airways’ business model, using Heathrow
as a hub for transit passengers: more than a third of passengers using the airport
are in transit, contributing little more to London’s economy than the price of
A devastating study by The Economist last year concluded that business travellers’
needs would be better served by forcing the airlines to move transit and leisure
passengers elsewhere, freeing up Heathrow as London’s key business gateway.
As for the rest, industry lobbyists harrumph that anyone questioning unlimited
growth is a killjoy who would deny the poor a week on the Costa Brava.
The truth is that the increase in leisure flights has been driven largely by
better-off middle- class travellers – half the adult UK population, says the CCC,
never flies at all. And stag weekends in Riga or second homes in Umbria simply aren’t crucial to
British economic growth.
Governments of Left and Right alike have no problem using taxes to control demand
on, for instance, tobacco.
Until they stand up to the aviation industry, its overweening ambition risks
making the valiant efforts of Ed Miliband look like a sideshow to business as usual.