Back in 1997 Europe's Transport Ministers defended European Commission (EC) proposals to end an old EC directive exempting air transport from fuel taxes. Nothing may have happened yet, but this seemingly dormant proposition has frequently been invoked in Brussels since then and has just received a powerful shot in the arm from the UK Government.

Fuel tax is not the only fiscal policy-in-waiting. At least within the European Union, value added tax (VAT) for air travel is on the agenda. This is all being proposed in the name of reining back an arguably unsustainable rate of air transport growth, and "ensuring that aviation covers its environmental costs".

At first glance the "consultation document" just released by the UK's Transport Department is an excuse to put off aviation policymaking for another few years, because it asks again all the questions which had been posed in a similar exercise which resulted in a 1985 White Paper. Going over old ground, however, is valid because the UK, and indeed the whole of Europe, have changed immeasurably since then.

At the time, the Thatcherite era was ascendant; now in Europe and the UK, left-of-centre governments are dominant.

Meanwhile, air traffic in Europe has doubled, and painful decisions about meeting overstretched aviation infrastructure needs are drawing even closer than they were in 1985. For example, near the main hubs like London, Paris and Frankfurt, exactly whose back yard is going to have a new airport if the growth in demand is to be met? Or a new runway? Given the fact that it has taken nearly four years so far to conduct an inquiry about whether London Heathrow could even have a new terminal within the airport's existing boundaries, how long will it take to get approval for a new runway or a new airport? And the UK is not unique in Europe in this respect.

It may be difficult for US citizens to understand how this constitutes a problem, unless they consider what it would be like proposing a new airport in Orange County, California. But they are going to have to understand the issues within a few years, because when (not if) the EU decides that aviation fuel is to be taxed, US (and other foreign) airlines would be required to buy their fuel at the taxed rate. That will be the proposition anyway. The USA is not going to take this sitting down.

So Brussels is going to have to be ready to fight all comers; its domestic carriers, the International Air Transport Association, and the mighty USA.

How can it be argued that a mere consultation document portends so much? Basically, the paper is promoting a debate from which aviation policy "for the next 30 years" is to be forged. For a period as extended as that, ordinary forecasting is inadequate. The government is looking for guiding principles as to how aviation will integrate with other forms of transport to meet social expectations over a long period.

In 1985 the question was when, where and how much additional airport capacity should be provided to meet demand. Now the questions include whether additional capacity should be provided, and if the need should be met indefinitely. Every question implies or even states a limit or a condition which is not questioned. For example: "If aviation covers its environmental costs, should capacity then be provided to meet demand?" And again: "Within the existing capacity restraints, how can the interests of UK consumers be best advanced?"

The overall purpose of the document is summed up in the question: "Should the government choose policies that respond to the demands of consumers and allow current growth patterns to continue, while mitigating the negative effects as far as possible? Or are the costs of this approach too high and should we choose policies to limit these negative effects?"

The deadline for replies is April 2001, and although this is ostensibly a UK document, anyone who thinks that the UK is the only country which will be influenced by it is on another planet. Those who have a view had better put it.

Source: Flight International