Opinion: More action, less talk needed on aviation policy

By Darren Caplan, chief executive, Airport Operators Association

You remember that scene from the ‘Life of Brian’, don’t you? Reg, leader of the People’s Front of Judea (PFJ), debates with his committee the attainment of world supremacy within five years.

Sibling Francis thinks this is optimistic unless the Roman Empire is smashed within 12 months, and Sister Loretta says, “It’s action that counts, not words, and we need action now.”

Reg agrees, “We could sit around here all day talking, passing resolutions, making clever speeches, it’s not going to shift one Roman soldier”.

Sister Judith then runs in, in a panic, reporting that the alleged messiah Brian has been arrested by the Romans and is facing crucifixion.

Reg says, “Right. This calls for immediate discussion… Completely new motion. That there be immediate action…”.

I’ll let you decide which of our political leaders are represented by Reg, Francis, Judith and Loretta, but it does seem to me that the People’s Front of Judea is in charge of UK aviation policy these days.

There’s lots of talk, and lots of talk about action, but then…

In reality the way our political leaders have been dealing with aviation is not at all funny. Indeed, given that aviation is a flagship industry in the UK, its treatment has been downright shoddy.

First there’s process.

  • May 2010: no expansion at all for aviation
  • November 2011: a National Infrastructure Plan which then proclaims aviation infrastructure is key to UK plc
  • (Early) mid March 2012: the Aviation Policy Framework First Draft and call for evidence on hub capacity to be published
  • (Later) mid March 2012: Framework and call for evidence to be delayed
  • July 2012: Framework published, but hub consultation delayed until ‘later in the year’.

Then there are the players.

The Prime Minister talks about elevating the UK to be a top five tourist destination and filling up planes to sell exports and attract inward investment – then is silent on the air connectivity which is required to deliver this.

The Chancellor’s plan says that aviation is key to the UK’s national infrastructure, yet he takes the highest Air Passenger Duty levels in the world and makes them even higher.

(As an aside, if you agree APD is too high, spend 15 seconds at and send an email to your MP).

We get two transport secretaries in two years, with the current incumbent – despite commendably trying to get things moving on aviation policy – horribly conflicted on the issue of hub, given her record of anti-Heathrow R3 campaigning before the last election.

And we have an aviation minister who elevates the cause of environmental and anti-aviation campaigners to ludicrous heights, despite the fact that these lobbyists create nothing while aviation provides around one million jobs, £50bn of GDP and £8bn in taxes, and also facilitates massive wider economic benefits for UK plc.

Then the Aviation Policy Framework First Draft gets published last week. While we should all welcome its publication, this is not a strategy for aviation.

It is a well written essay, which details tactics and issues surrounding aviation and the economy, environment and local impacts around airports, to get us to 2020; but it does not contain a coherent vision.

And despite all of the rhetoric about the need for a strategy which looks to the horizon and beyond, there is no consideration of the post-2020 landscape, and the call for evidence on a hub is delayed without any adequate explanation.

Maybe the nature of coalition government is that tough decisions on controversial policy areas like aviation get ducked to avoid internal rows.

Maybe there is a fear that some seats around airports could be lost at general elections if pro-airport decisions are taken.

And yet High Speed Rail 2 secured support from the PM and the government, despite the fact it affects far more seats than any airport policy would affect.

So what should the Aviation Policy Framework say?

The strategic vision is simple: if the UK’s economy is going to compete in established and emerging markets, it requires excellent aviation connectivity right across the country, including both vibrant point-to-point airports and sufficient world class hub capacity.

The government should unambiguously back the sector, and help it deliver jobs and growth for the wider economy.

Each and every UK airport should be allowed – encouraged even – to expand, funded by their own private sector resources and enabled by a planning and regulatory framework which promotes sustainable development.

On carbon emissions, the government should simply adhere to the requirements of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and do absolutely nothing else.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aviation accounts for 2% of global emissions, possibly rising to 2.5% in 2050, even allowing for projected substantial aviation growth.

It is not the major problem anti-aviation campaigners propagandise it to be; and as the Chancellor said last October, as a country we should do what we need to do on carbon but go no further – compliance with EUETS satisfies this criteria.

And the Sustainable Aviation (SA) coalition – of airlines, airports, aircraft and engine manufacturers, and air traffic service providers – has already published an updated roadmap this year which shows how UK aviation can grow substantially in the years to 2050 without any significant increase in carbon emissions.

Thirdly, on noise and local impacts, the government should by and large leave this issue to local airports and their communities.

Government should help to promote SA’s Noise Roadmap later this autumn, which will demonstrate how a combination of quieter fleets, smarter operations, better land use planning and enhanced community engagement can deliver for people living around airports.

It could also point out that if you do not like the noise made by airplanes, don’t go and live near an airport. Similarly, if you don’t like the noise of trains, avoid railway stations.

To be magnanimous for a moment, there are some positive tactical measures in the framework – for example, on further liberalisation for airlines, on surface access to airports and on the commitment to push for a global deal on carbon cap and trade, as opposed to just the current EU one.

But taken in aggregate, this Aviation Policy Framework is not the visionary strategy which is needed in order to get the aviation sector growing, to the benefit of the wider economy.

And there is not even a mention of a timescale and deadline for making a decision on hub capacity. How many people reading this would be allowed to take on a major project without some end point, however vague, being identified?

We are not engaged in a pub debate, as has been alleged recently. The aviation sector is full of intelligent people who will, given the chance, help deliver even stronger UK infrastructure, privately paid for yet delivering for everyone in UK plc.

It is time for the government to make some tough decisions and push on with creating an aviation strategy which is fit for purpose.

And it needs to do this in a timescale which means we can retain and increase jobs, businesses and routes linking us to regional and existing and emerging overseas markets.

Failure to deliver a robust, supportive, Aviation Policy Framework by the government’s own deadline of next March – in a country desperately seeking economic growth – will only result in worse regional connectivity and benefit the UK’s international competitors.

Let’s not have endless futile People’s Front of Judea-style debates while ultimately sanctioning a slow decline in living standards.

And let’s not allow other nations to eclipse us, their governments having had the courage to take the necessary decisions to maintain and improve their connectivity and competitiveness.

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