by John Stewart
Maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I’ve been taken aback by the sheer fury against the aviation industry which the Coronavirus crisis has unleashed. I’m not talking about anti-capitalists calling for ‘system change not climate change’. That was fairly predicable.
What has come across with the force of a tsunami is the anger and resentment directed at the aviation industry from ordinary residents living under flight paths. It is as if a lid has been lifted and uncontrolled emotions have poured out like hot lava escaping from a volcanic eruption.
Social media, email inboxes, the mainstream press have been flooded with material railing against industry bail-outs, insufficient testing of people arriving at airports or the merest hint of aviation workers being asked to take a pay cut. I’m not saying there is not truth in some of those accusations. But the accusations themselves have been dwarfed the sheer fury and frequency with which they are being made.
It is symptomatic of a much deeper anger. People’s anger doesn’t allow them to acknowledge the industry has any good points. Well-written articles about the importance of air freight to bring in medicines and essential supplies are met with an embarrassed silence. It’s like what happens in a violent revolution: good and bad are treated alike and all trampled underfoot.
Fury on this scale must have real roots. It can, it is true, be reinforced by fellow travellers, particularly on social media, and be as contagious as any virus. But there has to be more than that behind it.
We need to look at – the aviation industry in particular needs to look at – where this fury is coming from. A leading campaigner said to me, “the industry didn’t look after us in the good times, why should we be nice to it now?” And broadly, with some notable exceptions, that’s true:
- Why did so many American airports choose to put their new concentrated flight paths over just a handful of communities when they could have created multiple routes and rotated them to share out the burden?
- Why does Charles De Gaulle still land over 150 planes at night when both Frankfurt and Heathrow have periods without scheduled flights?
- Why is Luton Council, the owner of the airport, the judge and jury of when it breaks its own planning regulations?
- Why does Newcastle refuse to even consider giving residents respite?
- Why did Glasgow Airport turn a deaf ear for over a decade to calls for insulation from residents who have planes just 400ft above them?
All these problems could have been sorted without affecting the viability of the aviation industry. The industry knows that. Residents know that. In these cases, and many more, the industry felt it could ignore the residents almost at will. We begin to see where the fury and the anger have come from.
Research shows that people become more annoyed if they feel that any industry, any company is not doing all it can to mitigate its downsides.
There are signs in the UK things will improve. ICCAN, the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise, is due to publish a best practice guide later this very year and ICCAN’s very presence should improve the industry’s behaviour. The Government’s Aviation White Paper, also out later this year, is expected to introduce tougher standards on noise, sound insulation and community engagement.
And there are some airports which are doing noticeably better than others. And there have been welcome initiatives taken across the industry.
But I think what is needed is a new contract between airports and their residents. A contract where best practice is not just the norm, but is mandatory; where first-class consultation is not just a nice-to-have, but is compulsory; where if residents want respite, the airport needs to provide it; where the provision of sound insulation is not a post-code lottery; where residents help shape the noise policy of the airport and are not merely consulted on it from time to time. Airports, and perhaps airlines as well, should be required to provide an annual public account showing if and how they have met the regulations. If they have not, the most effective sanction would a requirement to reduce the number of planes using the airport by, say, 5% in the following year.
I hope that is not unrealistically tough. But I think something like this is required to abate the fury of residents. It would not harm the industry, even an industry that is currently on its knees, stricken by the virus, for these sorts of regulations to be met.
The other factor fuelling the fury is the sheer number of flights now going over so many communities. Respite in my view should be a no-brainer for the industry. It is the way to reduce flights numbers over particular communities while allowing some overall growth at the airport.
It would be a mistake at this stage to talk about more taxes on the industry in order to manage demand. It will take a long time to recover from the lockdown. The boss of Lufthansa said in the last few days: “It will take months until the global travel restrictions are completely lifted and years until the worldwide demand for air travel returns to pre-crisis levels.”
We need the industry to revive. Aviation has been a critical part of the globalised economy which has over the last few decades has lifted billions out of poverty. Aviation facilitates trade which brings prosperity and often opens up closed societies. Moreover, with less than 10% of the world having ever flown, there will be, in time, increased demand for both business and leisure travel.
What many residents fear, though, is return to the bombardment of noise over their heads. I suspect in due course there needs to be some demand management to ensure this doesn’t happen. Aviation is under-taxed, with no tax on aviation fuel and no VAT on tickets (outside a few countries). Something like the Frequent Flyers Levy (where each person gets one tax-free return flight each year but tax rises with each subsequent flight) could do the trick. It would manage demand and maybe reduce it in parts of Europe. The clever move – and I think the right move – would be to use the revenue from the tax to go to both Governments and the aviation industry for research and development into quieter and cleaner planes by both the public and private sector. Imposed in the short-term, the tax would be an additional burden for an industry on its knees. In the medium-term, though, it may well be a key part of the answer which will help abate the anger of residents while bringing benefits to the aviation industry.