UK aviation ‘emphatically needs growth’ insists DfT director

The UK Department for Transport (DfT) is committed to facilitating growth in flying despite the challenges of decarbonising aviation.

DfT aviation director David Silk told the Airlines 2023 Conference in London last month: “It’s emphatically the case that we need growth.

“UK aviation accounts for 200,000 jobs. It’s important for trade. It’s important for inward investment and to generate investment in technology to ensure we reach sustainability over time.”

He argued: “Our approach [is] to reach ‘net neutrality’ by 2050 while allowing growth.”

Silk insisted: “We want to enable people to fly to generate the revenue to be able to decarbonise. If we don’t invest, we risk having an old, rusting infrastructure that can’t decarbonise.”

However, aviation leaders challenged the government to move faster and to provide incentives for investment in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) production in the UK.

Oriel Petry, Airbus senior vice-president and UK head of public affairs, told the conference: “Aviation growth is critical. The key point is to make growth sustainable. It is frustrating we are not moving quicker to get SAF production going.”

She suggested: “The UK target to have five plants producing SAF by 2025 looks challenging. It seems to be about Parliamentary time.”

Iata regional vice-president for Europe Rafael Schwartzmann agreed, saying: “We need to scale up SAF production. We want to move faster, to incentivise production faster. Other regions, the US in particular, are producing SAF faster.

“We can do first generation SAF today, but the raw materials will become limited. We need certainty to incentivise long-term sustainability.”

Silk acknowledged: “People want us to go faster.” But he said: “It’s not just about Parliamentary time. This is complicated stuff. We need to consult. It’s needs time to work through.”

He added: “I feel we have more certainty and political commitment in the UK than in the US. We’re bringing everyone with us rather than rush at it and regret it later.”

Schwartzmann argued: “There are different pathways and we don’t know which will be most successful, but we have to invest and there will be risk in that investment.

“The UK has always been a leader in air transport, so it matters what the UK does.”

Schwartzmann noted a study by European air navigation body Eurocontrol found stopping flights of less than 500km would cut 24% of flights and reduce CO2 emissions by 4%.

But he asked: “What are the CO2 costs of building the infrastructure to replace those flights. It is not necessarily sustainable.”

The conference took place ahead of Virgin Atlantic operating the first transatlantic flight between Heathrow and New York using 100% SAF on November 28.

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