The Elephant that flies – Julian Eldridge 

To build a third runway or not to build a third runway. A burning question apparently. Once again the nation agonises, the politicians bluster and the good people of Slough and Hounslow are left wondering if the blight of 1400 aircraft movements a day over their homes is about to get worse.

It seems to be a given that unless London increases its airport capacity Britain’s businesses will be hobbled, tens of thousands of jobs will be in jeopardy and billions of pounds worth of GDP will flee to more flight friendly cities like Paris and Amsterdam.

The third runway bunfight, latest in a long line, coincides with the COP21 climate talks in Paris but aviation doesn’t seem to have got a mention in the conference coverage. Air travel represents around 12% of transports carbon emissions, 2% of the total emissions figure. That might not seem like a lot in the grand scheme but global air travel is set to triple by 2050 on current trends.

So we need to ask ourselves what problem we’re trying to address here. From a climate change perspective that problem is surely the number of flights we’re taking. Increasing airport capacity will just help people to make more journeys by air at a time when we should be discouraging them.

To suggest that you and I should reduce the number of unnecessary flights we take is not a message coming over from our administrators or anyone else for that matter. Foreign, and increasingly domestic, air travel is getting easier and cheaper. Budget airlines are some of our fastest expanding and most profitable businesses. As a young man during the sixties and seventies taking a flight was expensive and occasional. Since then travelling by air has become as routine as travelling by bus or train. Most of us would likely admit that a taxi journey is a rarer event than a flight. Flying is everyday, literally for many business people, so we shouldn’t be surprised at increasing pressure on airport infrastructure.

So should it matter? By thinking that reducing the number of flights we take would be a better idea than building more runways, am I just another killjoy environmentalist? Surely the stag night would be just as debauched if it took place in Preston rather than Prague? Will our children grow up feeling underprivileged for not having been taken to Disneyworld. With the conferencing possibilities of Skype and the like, do our business people really need to be jetting all over the globe to seal the deals?

The Dumbo in the departure lounge has to be the number of us who are frequent flyers, not the capacity of our airports. Like most of the remedies needed to counter rising emissions flying, or rather our need to do less of it, is yet another inconvenient truth.

At present air travel is zero rated for VAT as is all passenger transport and aviation fuel attracts no fuel duty. But if such tax disincentives are unpalatable then surely a frequent fliers levy should be considered.

But here’s a confession. On Christmas day Jayne and I are catching a flight out of Heathrow. We’re off to Nairobi to visit an over achieving daughter. In mitigation it’s the first time I’ve flown for about four years. It’ll be fun. I’ll get to grips with the carbon footprint when I get back.

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