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Air travel: does it have a place in a new green world

If we want to travel by air fine - we just have to get used to paying the proper price for the privilege. Serious taxation is the answer argues NCE editor Antony Oliver
The next phase of infrastructure modernisation at Heathrow kicked off this week with the start of the Heathrow East revamp of Terminals 1 and 2 as part of BAA’s £3.9bn to transformation of the beleaguered airport.
Clearly this project must be seen as good news for passengers and airlines. After all Heathrow Terminal 5 was the first new piece of terminal infrastructure at the “world’s largest airport” for some 22 years and thanks to the UK’s appalling planning policies, took 15 years from conception to opening.
Of course the huge disappointment of the Terminal 5 opening chaos only served to underline the scale of ill-feeling among passengers and airlines towards BAA.
And now, despite securing a £7.65bn funding package this week to positively underpin its investment aspirations, BAA certainly faces a tough future as it attempts to secure planning permission for new capacity and runways against the backdrop of the almost certain break-up of its monopoly in the south.
But one of the most significant threats to BAA must remain the massive environmental question mark that hangs over air travel in general. In short, are we sure that continued airport expansion is sustainable?
The issue was debated last week at NCE’s “Building modern airports” conference at which the serious recent under-investment in UK airport capacity was highlighted as being a major threat to UK competitiveness.
Former environmental special advisor to the London Assembly Charles Secrett warned that while carbon free surface transport was a possibility within 10 to 20 years, the same could not be said for air travel.
Despite arguments that aviation in general only adds a very small percentage to overall greenhouse emissions and that modern aircraft are considerably more efficient now that just 10 years ago, Secrett argued that even with Richard Branson’s biofuels, aircraft were still a very long way from being carbon neutral.
Yet on the other hand people want to travel and business relies on it. To halt growth by squeezing capacity is surely impractical and detrimental to overall economic prosperity.
So certainly we need modern 21st century airports in the UK. But we also need to make absolutely sure that the price that is paid by business and consumers to use this carbon expensive service reflects the impact on society. And we need to make sure that high speed rail alternatives are available.
Fundamentally the answer is to abandon the era of the ridiculously low cost flight. We must embrace the notion that flying costs and impose serious taxation to cover the full environmental price of travel and of providing modern efficient airports to land at.
Draconian measures that sadly I’m not sure our politicians are ready for.

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