Sir Graham Brady is MP for Altrincham and Sale West. Tim Alderslade is CEO of Airlines UK. This is a sponsored post by Airlines UK.
Aviation has been one of the UK’s great success stories, making a huge contribution to our economy and to our international trade links. A more outward-looking Britain outside the EU will need these connections more than ever. Ministers, though, shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking the sector’s future success is guaranteed.
Some people say that backing aviation is exactly what the Government should not be doing right now. Parliament has just agreed that we face a climate emergency and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have urged Ministers to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
But it is a false choice to say that you can’t be both for the environment and for aviation. The enemy is carbon, not air travel. The industry shares the Committee’s ambition to bring emissions into line with the Paris Agreement and has a long-term plan to achieve this. Already, within the UK, it has decoupled growth in aviation from growth in emissions, thanks largely to the tens of billions of pounds invested by airlines in the latest engine technology.
Brand new Airbus A320neo’s or Boeing 787s are not only more comfortable to travel in, they also emit substantially less carbon than their predecessors. The Neo can provide 20 per cent fuel burn savings by 2020 compared to the A320 CEO. This is a reduction of 5,000 tonnes of CO2 per plane, per year.
Looking ahead, the industry sees opportunities to further reduce emissions through the scaling up of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and the modernisation of UK airspace. Sustainable fuels could present real growth opportunities for the UK. They result in 70 per cent less lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than fossil jet fuel and are a vital “bridge” to game-changing electric planes.
Critically, SAF are proven technologically (Virgin Atlantic completed its maiden commercial journey using sustainable aviation fuel in 2018), but now need to be commercialised. British Airways has announced investment in a sustainable jet fuel plant in the UK but we can go further, with Ministerial help. For £150m of Government investment we could fund a number of commercial plants across the UK utilising wastes and residues to manufacture SAF, as well as a UK centre of excellent for SAF development. The potential prize is huge: over 5,000 jobs and gross added value of over £700 million.
Airspace modernisation has the potential to reduce emissions still further. Through the use of more modern airspace that uses satellite-based navigation to promote more direct routes, and better operating procedures – including the removal of stacking near airports – you could reduce carbon by between 9 per cent and 14 per cent through to 2050. Government needs to continue pushing for modernisation and take a clear lead in selling its strategic importance to the whole of the UK.
Of course, aviation is a global industry and action taken by the UK must be matched internationally, otherwise you run the risk of merely exporting carbon and disadvantaging ourselves in the process. Two years ago, the 191 member states of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) introduced an offsetting scheme that caps total aviation emissions at 2020 levels, in the process paving the way for a reduction up to 2050 of 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon. Crucially, this will facilitate further international steps that are consistent with the Paris agreement. This is a game changing moment for the sector and one that can see us meeting the exam question set by the CCC.
Fundamentally, if we are to prosper into the future as a globally connected country, we will need our aviation sector more than ever. For this to happen two things must work in tandem. The sector must continue to work together with Government successfully to implement its ambitious decarbonisation plan. But – in addition – Ministers must back UK aviation with an equally ambitious programme of support that sets out real action and substance that allows the sector to grow.
A succession of recent airline failures offers a vivid reminder that aviation is an industry whose success cannot be taken for granted. Rising costs have been a key factor in precipitating these failures, at the same time as a decline in business sentiment and economic conditions have hit revenues.
Last year, the UK yet again saw a reduction in direct air connectivity, and this was caused by a lack of capacity at our largest airports and a cost base that has hampered the ability of carriers to serve new destinations viably. This must change if airlines are to deliver the new routes and connections that will be vital to ensure stronger trading links for the UK (not least its nations and regions outside the South East) with the rest of the world. The Government wants to build a global Britain, but this can’t happen if the costs of sustaining new routes consistently outweighs revenue.
Now, more than ever, UK aviation needs long-term backing from the Government and policies that will help us to succeed in the face of an intensely competitive environment. That means taking a closer look at the high cost base that is explicitly the responsibility of Ministers, but also policies to deal with our congested airports. It means continued Government support for a new runway at Heathrow and openness to Gatwick’s ideas for expansion.
The Government’s Aviation Strategy explicitly references the need for a “partnership for growth”, between Ministers and industry, that can signpost the future of aviation over the next 30 years. The sector is listening. It has a plan for decarbonisation that is credible and fully in tune with the latest science. Now Government needs to do its bit. The enemy may be carbon, not air travel – but the enemy of a thriving UK air travel sector is surely Ministerial complacency.