Friday, June 21, 2024

Do any of the parties have a serious policy on aviation?

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Airport: 0. Airline: 0. Aircraft: 0.

There, dear reader, are the results of my word-search through the Conservative Manifesto in search of commitments on an industry that is profoundly important to the UK: aviation. Flying is also deeply controversial, with environmentalists and residents near busy airports united in opposition to expansion yet many businesses deploring the capacity issues that leave airlines hamstrung.

Answers came there none.

To be fair, when I searched the Tory battle plan for “Aviation” I found a sole paragraph: “We will support the growth and decarbonisation of our aviation sector. We will back British Sustainable Aviation Fuel through our SAF mandate, an industry-backed revenue support mechanism and investment in future aviation technology. We will support domestic flights including through Public Service Obligations, protecting vital routes within the UK, including to islands and remote areas.”

Nothing, then, about probably the most contentious single aviation issue in the UK: an extra runway at Heathrow. Or reforming air-traffic control to allow more direct and less-damaging flightpaths. Or using the tax system to encourage journeys on the most modern and efficient aircraft.

The Liberal Democrats have far more to say on this most contentious of industries. I don’t understand everything the party says, and I disagree with a fair amount, but at least the Lib Dem manifesto makes aviation an issue for real debate and decision, rather than the meaningless guff from the Tories.

Let me take each Liberal Democrat pledge in turn.

“Reforming the taxation of international flights to focus on those who fly the most, while reducing costs for ordinary households who take one or two international return flights per year.”

Bizarrely, this means families who fly first class to New Zealand will see their tax burden fall – so long as they restrict themselves to only one other outing by air during the year, such as business class to Buenos Aires and back. An odd outcome for a party keen to proclaim its environmental credentials.

The main point is to penalise those who fly the most – many of whom are based outside the UK. How, exactly, will their movements be tracked for tax purposes?

“Requiring airlines to show the carbon emissions for domestic flights compared to the equivalent rail option at booking.”

Fair play – though knowing how shockingly bad some airline tech is, I don’t envy those charged with enforcing it.

“Banning short domestic flights where a direct rail option taking less than 2.5 hours is available for the same journey.”

The Lib Dems have only London Heathrow-Manchester in their sights. They have clearly never tried to travel by rail between these two airports: good luck making the trip in less than four hours.

Of course they mean central Manchester to central London. Yet I bet none of the 1,600 daily passengers on the BA flights are making this point-to-point journey. The vast majority are transferring at Heathrow to an international flight.

Cut the air link, and you would drive those Manchester passengers to Amsterdam on KLM, Paris on Air France or Dublin on Aer Lingus. I understand that is not what the Lib Dems want, and would allow connecting passengers to continue flying. In which point, it becomes a pointless proposal.

“Opposing the expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted or London City airports and any new airport in the Thames Estuary.”

Easy to say. But “expansion” includes growing passenger numbers without building extra capacity. Is that included? And where does the unsatisfied demand go? Besides lovely Southend, which for some reason is excluded from the list, quite possibly to European rivals, once again.

Let us hope Labour has a serious agenda for aviation when its manifesto is finally published. But I won’t put money on that prospect.

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