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News - 18 December 2005
Adding to their number is proving to be controversial

Airport expansion hits turbulence in the south east

The number of UK air passengers is expected to rise from 215m to 500m in the next 25 years which will require larger airports but the government’s ambitious proposals for the expansion of existing facilities in the south east has hit stormy weather.

Last week BAA, the private company that operates all of Britain’s major airports, announced its plans for expansion at Stansted and immediately flew into a storm of protest from….. well….from just about everybody!

Local residents are deeply concerned about noise pollution and increased congestion on the roads and the need for thousands of new homes to accommodate airport workers. The airline companies are furious about the prospect of cross subsidy from other airports like Gatwick and Heathrow to fund the expansion which BAA has admitted will be necessary despite the cost of the Stansted scheme being about £1bn cheaper than they had originally estimated.

Airline companies that don’t operate from Stansted do not like the idea of having to give money to subsidise low-cost rivals such as Ryanair and easyJet that do. Even Ryanair and easyJet are not happy because they think that BAA’s plans are too expensive and too ambitious and the same capacity could be created for much less money (and consequently much lower landing charges).

Green groups insist that air travel is unsustainable per se and far from expanding capacity it should be scaled back to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the moment 5% of the UK’s greenhouse gasses are produced from aircraft but by 2030 it will be 25%. They particularly cite the fact that aviation fuel attracts no fuel duty and no VAT as an anomaly that needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency and dismiss claims that better design and efficiency will make planes less polluting (see earlier story in knowledgebase – Could the Batwing Plane make flying sustainable? 4th November)

Friends of the Earth persuaded the Department for Transport (DfT) to re-run their computer models for future demand assuming that aviation fuel was fully taxed and that this was passed on to the passenger. It showed that passenger numbers by 2030 would only rise to 315m – over a third below the estimate produced in the government’s recent aviation white paper. Consequently they argue that when the effective subsidy of air travel via VAT and fuel duty tax breaks is removed, a great deal of the planned new capacity will not be used.

The problem for the government is that taxes on aviation fuel are set internationally so it would be pointless for Britain to impose a tax unilaterally and the demand for air travel is very much consumer led. Just as drivers are reluctant to give up the freedoms that the car has given them, air passengers will not willingly forsake their cheap flights to distant parts and the experience of the fuel duty protests in 2000 have made politicians of every persuasion acutely aware of the dangers of trying. Tony Blair has specifically ruled out “some huge tax on cheap air travel”.

Another factor in favour of airport expansion is that they are huge economic drivers that could play an important part in the regeneration of large parts of the UK including the south east. For this reason the government wants to see aviation included in the European Emissions Trading Scheme but this is unlikely to satisfy environmentalists, the residents around Stansted or the airlines.

Read related items on:
British Airports Authority
Friends of the Earth
Blair, Tony

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