Crash Landing

As BA reports massive losses, isn’t it time to scrap the airport expansion programme?

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian’s website 22nd May 2009

So will Heathrow’s third runway still be built? Like most airline operators, British Airways seems to be going down in flames, yet the government is still intending to double the UK’s airport capacity between now and 2030 “in response to rising demand”.

Of course this could be just a temporary crisis. But it has two interesting features. The first is that the airlines have been hit much harder by the recession than most of the rest of the economy, even though the price of fuel has fallen dramatically over the past year. The second is that the sector which has contracted most sharply is business travel. Even before the recession began, almost all the business-only airline companies collapsed as a result of high fuel prices.

This is interesting because we were told by both the airline companies and the Confederation of British Industry that business flights were necessary and non-negotiable: civilisation would collapse if executives weren’t able to fly whenever and wherever they wished. The government repeated this creed, insisting that the UK economy was dependent on the expansion of Heathrow. Now we learn that these are the first expenses to be cut when a contraction begins. Businesses are discovering that there are other means of engaging with people overseas, such as email, video-conferencing and an outlandish new device called the telephone.

In other words, the non-negotiables are suddenly negotiable. Not because they were compromising human survival but because they were compromising corporate profits. Business in the UK is not dependent on airport expansion. With a little creativity and imagination (think of the LongPen system, which allows you to sign documents on the other side of the world), it could probably get by just as well with a fraction of current runway space.

Is this just a temporary crisis for the airlines? Perhaps not. The pressure to include their greenhouse gas emissions in national inventories is growing inexorably. This issue has suddenly become more urgent, with the publication of a new study in the journal Atmospheric Environment.

It suggests that the greenhouse impact from aviation is about 4.9% of all “anthropogenic forcing” – which means humankind’s contribution to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report proposed only 3%.

You might be tempted to imagine that this is still small beer; but it is massive by comparison to the size of the sector. In the UK, the turnover of all air transport (including freight) in 2007 was £20billion. This is smaller than the machinery rental sector.

Aviation accounts for 0.78% of total business turnover in the UK. Yet it is responsible for 13% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Any fair pricing of greenhouse gases would make flying prohibitively expensive.

So it looks like madness to be planning a third runway when the aviation sector could be entering a period of permanent contraction. Even if you ignore the moral and humanitarian case for scrapping it, the economic case looks pretty brutal.