International Civil Aviation Day: Isn’t it time the industry sorted its fairness problem?

Today (December 7), we are being told we should celebrate the importance of aviation as a benevolent industry working in the ‘service of all mankind‘, according to the UN’s international aviation body (ICAO).

The theme for International Civil Aviation Day this year is: working together to ensure no country is left behind. In a year where inequality has been front and centre in international politics, ICAO is keen to reinforce claims for the egalitarian qualities of aviation.

But what’s the truth behind the claims? How fair is air travel? Let’s look at Britain as an example. According to the World Bank, only the US and China carries more air passengers than the UK.

The busiest airport in Britain, Heathrow, carries more passengers than anywhere else in the world. The most interesting aspect of that statistic is not the sheer number of passengers passing through the airport, but the fact that almost three-quarters of them are travelling for leisure and disproportionately wealthy. It’s a pattern mirrored across the world.

The stark reality is that 70% of flights are taken by just 15% of people – more than half of Brits don’t fly at all. To put it another way, the wealthiest few are taking almost ten times as many flights as the average British holidaymaker.

The insidious truth is that inequality is inherent in aviation. The air travel taxation regime, which is heavily subsidised by the Government, results in those passengers who fly just once a year or those who don’t fly at all bankrolling the jet-setting lifestyles of a privileged few.

The situation can be remedied, to an extent, by the introduction of a frequent flyer levy which aims to redress the tax balance. The proposals, backed by the Greens, would allow people one tax-free return flight every year. A progressive rate of tax would be charged on any subsequent flights.

The proposals have a dual purpose; they also aim to reduce the environmentally unsustainable growth of aviation. Aviation is a top-ten global polluter. At present, air travel accounts for 2% of the world’s carbon emissions and, at the industry’s current rate of growth, those emissions are set to balloon by 300%.

Earlier this year, it was confirmed that the planet faces an entirely new, and frightening, climate change reality; world average CO2 emissions have breached the critical 400ppm threshold. Permanently.

Nobody is safe from climate change, but it is the poorest and most vulnerable that will bear the brunt of its effects, as they become more pronounced in the coming decades. Climate change and inequality are inexorably linked.

The imperative to reduce aviation demand, therefore, is not just driven by the need to make the industry fairer for passengers, but also the urgent need to tackle an impending climate change crisis, the consequences of which will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest.

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force last month, has seen over a hundred nations come together to ratify an accord recognising the need to put climate change at the forefront of national policymaking. The effectiveness of the deal, however, can only be judged on the actions it inspires.

In Britain, signatories to the Paris deal, air travel accounts for 6% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. But efforts to tackle the emissions issue have been stymied by a Government in hock to the rich and powerful airport lobby.

A point proved most dramatically by the Prime Minister’s recent decision to grant Heathrow airport permission to expand. The policy is wholly incompatible with our commitments under the Paris Agreement. In making the decision, the Government demonstrated that it bought, hook line and sinker, an invented ‘airport capacity crisis’ myth.

There is no airport capacity ‘crisis’ in Britain. It has always been a myth. In fact, every airport in the UK, apart from Heathrow, is operating under capacity; existing rail services can offer genuinely workable alternatives for the nine out of the ten of the most popular routes out of Heathrow airport. The frequent flyer levy, meanwhile, would, crucially, cut demand to a level that would make extra capacity unnecessary.

The reality is that we can’t expand Heathrow or any other airport, and hope to keep to the upper 2C limit for global average temperature rises agreed in the Paris accord. Unless we take bold and decisive action to halt the current growth in aviation, the more ambitious 1.5C limit is already beyond our reach.

Rather than confront these plain, if politically uncomfortable facts, the Conservative government has opted, instead, to succumb to the multi-million pound lobbying efforts of oversized airport industry.

Heathrow airport, which has so far seen soaring pre-tax profits of 223m in 2016, spent an estimated £40m on its successful attempts to win politicians and the wider public to its cause.

The airport even created and funded a so-called ‘grassroots’ organisation to act on its behalf. It is no wonder, therefore, that Heathrow has been accused of subverting democracy and buying unfair public and political influence.

Influence that has led the Government to disregard not only its commitments under the Paris Agreement but also the concerns of the local residents who will suffer the immediate air and noise pollution impacts of expansion most acutely.

Aviation, in Britain at least, prioritises the needs of a relatively small number of wealthy jet-setters over the needs of ordinary holidaymakers, local residents, local communities and the planet.

The industry is dominated by wealthy lobbyists working tirelessly to undermine the fight against a climate change crisis which disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable.

Consequently, I hope you will forgive me for choosing not to celebrate the aviation industry’s vaunted service to ‘all mankind’ this International Civil Aviation Day.