Instead of airport expansion, a 'frequent flyer tax'

| 10th October 2015
Plane coming in to land at Heathrow. 70% of flights are taken by just 15% of the population, while over half don't travel at all in any single year. Photo: Roy via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
Plane coming in to land at Heathrow. 70% of flights are taken by just 15% of the population, while over half don't travel at all in any single year. Photo: Roy via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
The demand for ever more air travel and new runways comes from a small minority of frequent flyers, writes Keith Taylor - the 15% who take 70% of flights. So we can reduce that demand with a frequent flyer tax - while making it cheaper for ordinary families to enjoy an annual holiday abroad.
A Frequent Flyer Levy would allow everyone to take one return flight a year tax-free. Flights would be cheaper for most people, who holiday abroad once a year. But for others the levy would rise for every extra journey.

We have a government that puts business at the heart of everything it does. From cuts to corporation tax to the privatisation of our public services, profit is the motive.

So it should come as no surprise that the main consideration in the debate about airport expansion has been how much more money an expanded Heathrow or Gatwick would bring in.

The impact all the construction and extra flights would have on local communities, the Greater London environment and global climate has been an afterthought. If they ever thought about these issues at all.

For Greens, sustainability and social justice runs through every one of our policies. So the Green Party has just released a report that flips the airport expansion debate on its head.

'Airport Expansion Doesn't Make Climate Sense' takes a step back and asks, not whether growing Heathrow or Gatwick would provide the best outcome for our society and our planet, but whether airports can be expanded at all.

A quarter-billion tonnes of CO2 over 60 years

And in recognising the fundamental flaw in our government's plans - that we won't have an economy without a planet - we've found that increasing air traffic is simply incompatible with Britain meeting its climate targets.

The Airports Commission's recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow will see flights at that airport alone increase from 470,000 to 740,000 per year, generating an extra 244.6 million tonnes of CO2 between 2026 and 2086.

The Commission assumes that growth in Heathrow emissions can be counterbalanced by cuts in UK aviation emissions elsewhere - an extremely lofty ambition seemingly built on perpetuating the North-South divide in jobs and investment.

In reality, says the Climate Change Committee, meeting our climate targets depends on us cutting our aviation emissions to 2005 levels by 2050. Yet flights are projected to grow by 60% over that same period. It would take a technological miracle to make planes efficient enough for us to meet this target while vastly increasing the number of flights.

Growing demand for air travel is often cited as the main reason we 'must' expand either Heathrow or Gatwick, with no one in government or on the Airports Commission countenancing the idea of not meeting that demand.

They appear to believe that demand for air travel is the new 'categorical imperative' - it must be met whatever the cost. New tarmac and concrete must be laid, homes must be torn down, children must play indoors to avoid the roar of jet engines.

But the Green Party believes that children's health, people's wellbeing, and our climate is more important than meeting the apparently endless demand for more flights. We believe that the majority of people, who fly at most once a year, should not suffer to suit the lifestyles of the tiny minority - just 15% of the population - who take 70% of flights.

Demand management with a 'frequent flyer' tax

Our answer to the problem of growing demand for air travel is to seek to curb it.

For some time now I, together with Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, have been backing calls for a Frequent Flyer Levy (FFL) to replace air passenger duty. This would allow everyone to take one return flight a year tax-free, so flights would be cheaper for most people, who holiday abroad once a year. But for those who book more flights, the levy would rise for every subsequent outbound journey.

As the report explains: "While the impacts of climate change will be spread across the global population, and local environmental impacts felt most by those living closest to airports, the benefits accrue to a small section of UK society ... An estimated 15% of the UK population takes about 70% of the flights. More than half of the people living in Britain took no flights abroad in 2013."

Experts say an FFL would see the number of flights taken by the wealthy for leisure purposes - which account for much of the recent growth - cut to a level that would make extra airport capacity unnecessary.

On top of this, there is huge scope for reducing our reliance on short-haul flights by encouraging people to use existing rail networks, and investing in our railways to make the train the cheapest, fastest and easiest way to travel relatively short distances, such as from London to Edinburgh.

With nine of the top ten routes operating from Heathrow served by short-haul flights, such an initiative could take pressure off both our airports and our climate.

The fact is that on airport expansion, and virtually every other issue we face, prioritising profits leaves us only with negative options. But if we begin, as we must, to place people's health and wellbeing, and our environment, at the forefront of our decision-making, opportunities for improving people's lives will present themselves.

The Airports Commission recommended what it thinks is the least bad option - one that might compromise the quality of life of a few hundred thousand people, and the environment we all share, but will at least create a handful of jobs and boost aviation profits.

The Green Party believes in the only good option - changing the way we tax air travel and investing in our railways so that we don't have to expand our airports. This option would create jobs across the country, cut pollution and allow us to meet our emissions targets.

It is best for local residents, best for those who enjoy an annual trip abroad, and best for our climate.



The report: 'Airport Expansion Doesn't Make Climate Sense'.

Keith Taylor is the Green Party MEP for South East England.


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