A growing lobby of environmentalists are aiming to restrict air transport expansion

Aviation faces the threat of "unreasonable" environmental sanctions unless it is treated as an integral part of the transport industry as a whole, says Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) executive director Philippe Rochat. Noise is the main local concern, says Rochat, who claims that a high-speed train produces a noise footprint "equivalent to a Chapter II aircraft". Although a train's noise is sustained along its entire journey, not just at the beginning and end, this form of transport is politically acceptable, he adds.

But aviation's effects on the climate may be more serious, says Rochat. Addressing the Institute of Economic Affairs' Future of Air Transport conference in London in 2002, he predicted that aviation growth could gradually increase its share of "man's total contribution to climate change" from 3.5% to 5-6% in 50 years - but he acknowledged this projection was uncertain.

Further improvements in reducing the environmental impact of aviation will be trickier. The huge strides in technology that have reduced aviation noise and pollution over the last 40 years make new leaps in efficiency more difficult now.

Meanwhile, the European Union's transport think-tank at the Economic Research Centre (ERC), has examined one of the air transport industry's prime arguments for expansion and declared it invalid, stating in a recent report: "The [alleged] connection between transport and economic development is not borne out by scientific analysis."

The ERC says no economist has proved whether transport activity is the chicken or the egg in terms of economic development. It suggests that "the spatial distribution of activities" is the driver of transport activities, observing that the development of centres of specialisation in Europe is one of the causes of a greater need for transport. The ERC does not come up with definitive answers, just makes clear its belief that the correct questions are not being asked. Consequentially, it states: "One of the lessons to be learned from the [study] was the need to avoid entrusting transport policies with tasks for which other sections of the economy were responsible."

Decision time

In environmental terms, one of the biggest decisions in the near future will be the UK government's announcement of policy on air transport between now and 2030. The most crucial issue is the shortage of runways. The International Air Transport Association, the Association of European Airlines, and particularly the UK carriers have all backed a plan that includes a third runway at London Heathrow and more runways at Gatwick and Stansted.

Simultaneously, however, the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has produced a report that is the stuff of IATA's nightmares. The Royal Commission recommends to government that there should be no more runways at all and short-haul flights should be replaced by rail transport. One of the tools for controlling demand for air transport, the report says, should be an EU emissions charge "which would be large enough, when passed down to the consumer, to make an appreciable difference to ticket prices".

It seems doubtful at this stage that the UK government will listen to the proposals - it has ignored both the Royal Commission's previous studies on the same subject. And it is unlikely that the ERC's fundamental suggestions will be investigated deeply for some time.

But all these studies are putting additional weaponry into the hands of the environmental lobby, and the industry cannot afford to underestimate the growing power of those who are determined, rightly or wrongly, to restrict air transport expansion.

Source: Flight International