The UK appeal court’s ruling that plans for a third runway at London Heathrow airport are unlawful on climate grounds is in line with intensifying pressure on a commercial aviation industry that had been enjoying years on largely unconstrained growth.
Crucially, this case hints at a future where the sector might face more legal challenges to its expansion plans – whether they involve infrastructure projects or other major investments, potentially including fleet growth.
Those instigating the challenges would cite the need for governments to uphold commitments made under initiatives such as the Paris Agreement, which create legal obligations to meet certain emissions targets.
While objections to infrastructure projects on environmental grounds is not new – particularly when it comes to local issues relating to noise pollution, for example – the concept of legally binding, state-level commitments to emissions targets is a relatively nascent one, and the Heathrow case marks an early example of a court ruling in favour of them.
For an industry that lacks any straightforward answers to how it can grow and concurrently reduce its environmental impact in real terms, being challenged on such an issue in the courts would be a significant development.
Indeed, combined with environmental scrutiny that has sky-rocketed in the past 12 months amid high-profile coverage of movements such as “flight shaming” and the Extinction Rebellion – particularly in Europe – this legal dimension further complicates an outlook that has already shifted towards greater oversight of airlines and the wider sector.
Granted, the issue with Heathrow appears to have been a failure to specifically link the third runway to the UK’s environmental commitments, rather than a potentially more significant failure to make a case for expansion that is compatible with those obligations.
But still, it is notable that a major airport infrastructure project is being kiboshed – at least temporarily – by legalities around the environment and a failure to fully account for them in planning.
The “new normal” for commercial aviation is that in legal terms, and in more abstract ways, intense environmental scrutiny is here to stay.
Absent full consideration of sustainability in decision-making – at every level, from individual airlines through to governments – Heathrow’s plight shows that the industry runs the risk of losing control of its own destiny.