The air transport industry gathered in Geneva last week for its second annual meeting on aviation and the environment. On balance it was a realistic attempt to assess achievements so far and discuss strategy for the future.

But a touch of self-deception creeps in wherever airlines – or any industry representatives – summarise how successful they and the manufacturers have been in improving the fuel-efficiency of aircraft over the last decade and more. As far as the perception of the public and the press is concerned, that is history. Even a major leap forward in emissions reduction, if it happened today, would be history tomorrow. Past successes will never silence those like Jeff Gazzard, the Green Alliance’s veteran campaigner, nor the political representatives of constituencies near airports. They want to see the certainty of future additional improvement, especially faced – as they are – with the certainty that air transport movements will increase, at least in the medium term.

Historic statistics are only useful for convincing governments that the war is being fought successfully. This gives them the necessary ammunition when they argue, as in the end they find themselves doing, that aviation is an essential part of modern life, and artificial curbs on its natural growth will harm the economy of any nation that imposes them unilaterally.

That is why conferences like this are essential. Advances have to be agreed globally, or at least within major economic blocs like the European Union or the North American Free Trade Association, and unless they get together regularly, nothing will happen.

This conference has confirmed a subtle shift in aviation’s environmental priorities. A decade ago noise at airports used to be the most talked-about issue, but it is being upstaged by discussion about emissions and global warming. The major reason why macro-issues like global warming are gaining ground at world forums, however, is that noise is – in the end – a local issue. In third world countries, if an airport brings jobs and relative prosperity, the noise is out of sight on the list of priorities for action. The importance of the global dimension is heightened by the expansion of aviation in populous countries like China and India as their massive latent market demand is gradually unlocked.
Meanwhile, the future profit that will accrue to the manufacturers of even quieter, more efficient engines and airframes ensures they will be developed anyway. So has this Geneva forum highlighted anything useful except the need for global co-operation?
Actually yes. Although the airline industry has, for years, been calling for air traffic management (ATM) that makes flying from A to B more direct and efficient, any benefits so far have been patchy and painfully slow to develop. Aircraft that spend more time in the air than necessary burn more fuel than they need to.

Poor ATM’s contribution to global warming was put in the spotlight at this conference, while large-scale contributions by fuel-cell technology and alternative fuels are still far-distant prospects. ATM remains a rock-bottom political priority and, unfortunately, unlike the aeroengine industry, its performance is hamstrung almost everywhere by the direct effect of the ignorance and apathy of politicians on the performance of their state-owned air navigation service providers (ANSP).

Yet speakers like Cathay Pacific’s line operations manager Russell Davie pointed out that 12% of wasted fuel is produced by ATM network inefficiency. There are real options: direct routeings that are not upset by borders, or by spurious security considerations that have not been reviewed since the Cold War; optimum arrival and departure patterns at airports; and fuel- and noise-saving techniques like continuous descent approaches. Where they are being applied most effectively is in countries where governments have made their ANSP autonomous, or even privatised it.

Governments cannot have their cake and eat it. They cannot allow their exchequers to pocket overflight revenues as if they were taxes without investing in an optimum ATM service for the future, at the same time crying crocodile tears about air traffic delays and the airline contribution to global warming. Politicians know no more about ATM than they do about building aeroengines, so those governments that have not already done so should get out of it – except in their safety oversight role – and leave ATM to the experts.

Source: Flight International