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ICE launches report on aviation’s future

Four provocative scenarios showing how UK airport infrastructure and air transport could look in 2040 have been set out in a new ICE report.

Aviation 2040, developed by the ICE in conjunction with Arup, challenges the government and industry to think creatively about the long term development of the UK’s airports and their place in the wider transport system.

The four scenarios are based on assessments of key social, technical, economic, environmental and political (STEEP) factors that could cause dramatic change to our airports and air transport sectors over the next 30 years.

“These scenarios highlight the need to develop new thinking to take account of the pressures that could dramatically transform air transport.”

Peter Hansford, ICE

These factors could include changes in society’s attitudes to climate change and terrorist activity, rising UK emission levels, major technological advancements, population growth, changes in government leadership and economic conditions affecting jobs, disposable income and the cost of travel.

Each scenario contains a narrative, timeline of plausible events, current and projected 2040 economic and aviation statistics and key STEEP drivers.

ICE vice president Peter Hansford said: “These scenarios highlight the need to develop new thinking to take account of the pressures that could dramatically transform air transport and infrastructure in the future.

“The government’s last strategic policy document on aviation was in 2003. There have been major developments since then, notably the economic crisis and revised climate change and emission reduction targets. It is time to open up the debate about the need for a long term national strategy on airport infrastructure.”

Broader consideration

Presenting the scenarios, ICE aviation expert and Mouchel head of markets Simon Godfrey-Arnold said: “Planning for the future demand for air transport is generally uncertain, but we hope the creation of the scenarios will move the discussion beyond some of the immediate talking points surrounding individual projects and encourage a broader consideration of the future shape of UK aviation as a whole.”

Arup foresight innovation and incubation senior analyst Marcus Morrell said: “The scenarios provide a framework for an discussion about the future of UK aviation.

“The government’s last strategic policy document on aviation was in 2003. There have been major developments since then.”

Peter Hansford, ICE

They are not predictions, instead they represent a range of possible outcomes. Although fi ctitious, they are drawn from the expert opinions of key industry stakeholders and captured through Arup workshops.” The ICE believes now is the time to instigate a serious debate about the future development of UK airport infrastructure.

The Council for Science and Technology’s report A National Infrastructure for the 21st Century found that the “network of networks” that makes up the UK national infrastructure is becoming increasingly vulnerable to systemic failure and is ill equipped to deal with the socioeconomic and climate change challenges of the 21st century.

Elsewhere, on 8 December the Committee on Climate Change is set to publish its report advising the government on how the UK can reduce gross aviation emissions back to 2005 levels by 2050.

Finally, the economic crisis and the forthcoming General Election have focused thinking on the future structure of the UK economy and the transport system that is required to underpin it.

  • The ICE is publishing a strategic policy document on airport infrastructure in 2010. Feedback on these scenarios will be used to produce this report. If you would like to respond, download the consultation document from

Scenario one

Eco Angst 2040


Society has become acutely aware of the effects of advancing climate change and air travel has suffered as a result.

Those who need to travel by air do so discreetly for fear of vilification. Westminster sees much-needed economic value in air travel and reduces taxes to stimulate demand. Local food campaigns have led to a modal shift for freight to ground transportation and shipping.

Technological advancements improve fuel efficiency. Oil prices reach a historical post-peak high and biofuel-based alternatives become economically viable. Environmental lobbyists and civil society groups denounce air travel despite technology gains.

Video-conferencing has drastically reduced business and personal travel. The government props up a niche long-haul sector for strategic economic gain. The travelling public shift to rail for domestic and intercontinental journeys. Many regional airports close and international airports are nationalised. Cargo transportation grows, but is constrained by airport capacity.


  • 2013 The World reaches official peak oil
  • 2016 ‘Stay British’ media domestic tourism campaign
  • 2018 Boeing aircraft with reduced carbon emissions
  • 2019 The government introduces personal carbon accounting
  • 2023 BAA sets up rail franchise
  • 2025 British Airways re-nationalised
  • 2026 Boeing and Airbus merge
  • 2028 Pope tells faithful to stop flying
  • 2037 Boris Island damaged in North Sea surge
  • 2039 Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow only international airports in operation within the UK


Scenario two

Laissez-Faire 2040


The global economy has grown rapidly and credit is cheap and plentiful. Despite warnings of runaway climate change, economic activity and increased competition fuel social mobility.

Airport expansion is virtually self-regulating, with the government employing a light touch in its role as regulator. Taxation measures benefit the aviation industry.

Technology gains make emission levels from air transport more acceptable. Airport infrastructure is developed and there is better surface access to airports.

Regions prosper around UK hubs. Economic growth has led to job creation and an increase in disposable income. Combined with the demand from a prosperous Asia, aviation booms.

Despite the advance in technology, global emissions targets are not met. The impacts of extreme, sudden climate change begin to take hold and adaptation becomes a priority. The UK’s largest airports invest heavily in flood defences.


  • 2022 Heathrow’s third runway opens
  • 2023 The government abolishes the Green Belt
  • 2024 Europe faces dramatic rise in environmental refugees
  • 2025 The government backs tough Emissions Trading Scheme
  • 2026 G6: Russia, China, US, Saudi Arabia, EU and India
  • 2035 Holland’s Schiphol airport floods
  • 2036 Stansted’s third runway opens
  • 2040 Concorde II starts operating


Scenario three

Big Stick 2040


The government encourages a reluctant domestic population to shift transport modes, driven primarily by political concerns about climate change. Short haul air travel is forcibly migrated to rail within an integrated national transport strategy. Road pricing is introduced and rail fares are subsidised.

Freight shifts from air to rail and shipping. The cost of carbon has increased steadily over time and the government has enacted punitive tax hikes on carbon intensive industry. Capacity is constrained in the South East, while the government attempts to stimulate an ailing economy in the Midlands and the North. The cost of flying is generally high, but those who can afford it continue to fly.

Cleaner air travel spurs long-haul demand globally, especially on routes between the US, Europe and prosperous BRIC countries. There are operational improvements in the long-term. However, these do not bring prices down. Looking forward, the worst of climate change is thought to have been avoided.


  • 2013 EU-US agree to tax aviation fuel
  • 2015 Carbon credits are distributed in the UK on a per capita basis
  • 2016 The UK establishes a National Transport Executive with regulatory capacity
  • 2018 Britain adopts the Euro
  • 2019 India and Brazil become permanent members of the UN Security Council
  • 2022 Higher rate of UK tax at 70%
  • 2025 High speed rail hubs in London, Glasgow, Brussels, Zurich
  • 2031 First British airport to be nationalised
  • 2032 Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland secede from the United Kingdom and build up long haul capacity


Scenario four

Vortex of Despair 2040


The global economic centre shifts east to Asia. Rather than an uninterrupted period of status quo in the UK, there is regular political change. Airports become a political football leading to stasis.

The economy is reliant on the export of high value added services, but the government struggles to fund the educational system by which it is underpinned.

Periods of prolonged economic contraction have led to high unemployment. Immigration is a contentious issue. Despite the UK economy’s relative decline, numbers of economic and environmental refugees begin to rise. Disposable income shrinks while the cost of travel increases. Alarm about the environment, and about health and security issues, is growing.

Despite economic difficulties, emissions reduction targets are ratcheted up in reaction to the latest climate science.

The whole transport network stagnates. Some regional airports close, others are sold. Long haul routes to Asia remain popular.


  • 2012 Double-dip recession stalls economic recovery
  • 2018 Ryanair and Easyjet merge
  • 2022 HS2 opens
  • 2023 Pandemic breaks out in Europe & US
  • 2024 Major airline crash compounds public fear
  • 2025 Unprecedented massive flooding in Bangladesh
  • 2031 HS2 closes as costs are too high
  • 2035 The EU and US agree to Open Skies
  • 2039 Heathrow, Birmingham and Glasgow airports bought up by Indian multinational

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