Aviation blind spot

There is much to commend the energy policy issued by the government today with its emphasis on renewable energy and quite ambitious targets. But Ed Milliband has queered his patch with his support for aviation. 

He has repeated the New Labour mantra that poorer passengers should not be priced out of being able to take planes. But this flies in the face of both rationality and the government’s attitude to other modes. In particular, the government’s policy is to drive up regulated rail fares by one per cent above the rate of inflation and, indeed, to allow the private rail companies freedom to put up the other ticket prices by as much as they want.

While rail may not be as environmentally sustainable as its supporters would like, its carbon per passenger mile ratio is certainly better in most cases than for any other mode and yet it is not accorded the same favourable status. I have never understood this policy of protecting aviation from the normal market forces and, indeed, using tax to deter further use since its externalities – damage caused to the environment – are so high.

After all, ordinary people are priced out of buying, say, Rolex watches, so why should flying be an inalienable right. In any case, people flying, even on the cheap airlines, are, on average, high earners and therefore favouring aviation is a regressive measure. Rail passengers, too, tend to be well off but at least the railways are a public service which provide a vital nationwide link that can be used by anyone.

The truth of the matter is that the Labour politicians are, as Mrs T used to say, frit – scared of a popular revolt against high taxation on aviation. But it is the politicians’ job sometimes to try to shift public opinion rather than merely kowtowing to it.

  • Dan

    I wonder if there is another angle to this – basically the new labour (nulab) types like flying themselves (either on business paid for by taxpayer) or on budget airlines for leisure (I know my MP is a regular budget airliner to get to his holiday home, yet he prides himself on his green credentials but his airmiles must be massive – yet he could look at http://www.seat61.com and go by train to southern europe if he wanted). Since those nulab MPs and Ministers don’t want to be accused of hypocrisy they have to trot out the mantra that flying should be for everyone, to justify their own use.

    These are the sort of people who travel inter city on business, but you’d never find on a bus outside of London, or a local passenger train, when (like many of the population who can afford it too) they’d be reaching for their car keys.

    You don’t quite get this from the Tories, as they would not really care in quite the same way if you could or could not afford air fares (or train fares or cars for that matter) so long as the market can provide – if it can all well and good, if it can’t they would see their role as trying to help it do so, or let it go to the wall.

    Am I being too simplistic?

  • RapidAssistant

    Someone needs to look at Air Passenger Duty. Is it an environmental measure, a way of encouraging modal shift or simply a quick and dirty way of taxing the aviation industry since kerosene itself isn’t directly taxed?

    Given that domestic short haul flying is actually the most environmentally damaging, because they are more frequent and the planes are smaller (hence the CO2 emissions per seat flown are higher), why is the associated APD the lower than for a long haul flight. Arguably, it should be the other way around.

    Then there is fragmentation – with more point to point flying these days there is less of a need for people to connect through large hubs like Heathrow, and hence take domestic flights to make the necessary connections.

  • Chris Sharp

    Aviation can never go green. You can have electric cars and electric trains, but unless someone invents a battery that weighs gamms, can stores mega watts and is smaller than a £2 coin then planes will be powered by kerosene.

    If it can’t go green then you have to ignore it when ever you talk about going green. Thus the blind spot.

    There’s no point complaining that the government won’t tax airlines, it’s a waste of time. Start asking the very awkward question, how do we make air travel green? And I don’t mean more efficient, I mean no damage to the environment.

  • Mike Ellwood

    Pricing of rail travel might be made more rational (and more affordable to those on average incomes, if MPS (including all ministers) were made to buy their own train tickets, and not given free first-class rail-warrants. Difficult to enforce but they should also be made to physically buy their own ticket, not get some poor secretary to do it.

    Then they would be confronted by the “reality” of the looking-glass world that is rail-ticket pricing in 2009. If the legislators were confronted by this reality, they might do something about it.

    Of course New Labour is obsessed by air travel, for the reasons that Dan mentioned, and effectively, they have turned their backs on rail. They have had so many opportunities to really get a grip on the railways since 1997, but they basically weren’t interested.
    They don’t have a clue about being “green”. Too little, far too late.

  • William

    Regarding kerosene not being taxed, the question is why is it not taxed when used as fuel for transport? You can be sure that if someone designed a car to run on kerosene the governmwnt would quickly slap a tax on it.

  • Neil Macaskill

    The main problem with taxing airline fuel is getting international agreement – much easier for each country to apply its own airport duty.

    Mike – since the government spends 5 billion a year keeping the railways from bankruptcy I’m not sure your accusations are accurate. MPs don’t get travel warrants, they claim fares on expenses – and the problem with this is that they can also claim for using their own cars.And without “expense account” travellers paying the full price fares the rail companies would be in even deeper merde than they are now.

    Unfortunately, as Christian reminds us regularly, railways are expensive to run, and the cost has to be met somehow. Even the Japanese railways are heavily subsidised, and the SNCF is going to be in debt for ever to pay for the cost of its high speed lines.

    An airline has no “track” costs to meet. This is enough to overcome the high cost of fuel and
    land for airports and so if neither form of transport was subsidised I’m afraid airlines would survive and railways in general would not.

    I’m very much pro-rail but there are some uncomfortable facts we have to face. Low cost airlines have been a tremendous success (confession – I do use them!) however much we may dislike them.

  • Dan

    Neil – Your point is well made, but as I understand it MPs DO still get travel warrants (I know because I worked for one!) – I’m sure things have not changed significantly although I’ve not done that job for a while. When I worked there MPs got 1st class Travel Warrants for use between constituency and London (staff also got a limited number of such warrents – not sure how many but it could have been something like 12 per annum), and weirdly – MPs spouse and children also got a certain number of such warrants. I could never understand the reasons for that – after all if you are expected to work away from home how often does your employer pay for your family to go and see you on a day out? Not in the public sector anyway.

    BUT, you are right, you could use a car and claim mileage, and for other trips (ie not between constituency and London, but say if you were invited to speak somewhere in relation to being an MP) you could, as I recall, claim either expenses of car mileage. This of course adds to the system where people think mileage claims leave them a ‘profit’ as they don’t consider the full depreciation of the car, whereas reclaiming train fares does not leave any ‘surplus’.

  • The Thin Controller

    To Neil Macaskill – I agree completely, but with one small point of correction: in France, the debt for their high-speed system is held not by SNCF (which is profitable), but by RFF, their equivalent of Network Rail. The total public debt of the French rail system has been reported at over 42 billion euros, or in the order of £32 bn. Which makes for an interesting contrast with Great Britain.

    As one German friend of mine put it, “the most expensive thing a government can do is fight a war. The next most expensive thing is build a land transport network”.

  • Anoop

    The only reason flying is cheap is because fossil fuel is plentiful and cheap. Some fuel is burnt to overcome drag, which can be minimised by streamlining and using larger planes. Modern planes are almost as efficient as they can possibly be. However, aircraft can never be completely ‘green’ because a proportion of the fuel has to be burnt simply to generate enough lift to keep it in the air. This depends on the weight of the aircraft (and its payload), so even if one puts a lot of effort into reducing the weight of the aircraft, heavy passengers and luggage will contribute to increased fuel consumption.

    In contrast, British trains could potentially be much ‘greener’ than they currently are. It does not matter much financially because electricity is cheap and rail is less wasteful than other modes of transport. Improvements are possible in the following areas:
    – reducing weight, through meticulous optimisation of the carriage structure
    – minimising wastage of space, thus fitting more passengers in each carriage
    – streamlining to reduce air resistance on high speed trains (e.g. streamlined undercarriage)
    – regenerative braking (reduces energy requirement by 20%)
    – electrification, preferably at 25kV AC with regenerative capability
    – intelligent use of traction motors e.g. switching half the motors off when less power is needed
    – intelligent use of carriage lighting, heating and air conditioning i.e. switching it off when not needed
    – running shorter trains at less busy times

  • Neil Macaskill

    Electricity is cheap? Actually, per unit of energy, much more expensive than oil, coal or gas (most electricity is generated from fossil fuels so by definition MUST be more expensive).

    I agree however that train companies could do much to save energy – how often do we find diesel trains idling between duties? Or see a Pendolino formed of 9 coaches go past with all the first class section empty, so 100-200 tons of dead weight is being transported for no reason? The advent of fixed-formation trains is a backward step in this regard.

    The problem that train travel has in green terms is “dead weight per passenger” – even a full carriage involves accelerating and decelerating 1/2 ton of weight per person, which is as bad as a Range Rover with 5 people inside. A road coach of 12 tons can carry 50 people in comfort, ie 1/4 ton per passenger.

  • Dan

    No road coach I’ve ever been on carries anyone in comfort IMHO!

  • Dan

    Airline industry – puff piece in today’s Gruaniad about Gatwick top man


    In the heroic tone of:
    “By Wednesday morning Wingate had struggled doggedly into the airport and spent the next two days there, co-ordinating the shifting of near-Himalayan piles of snow”

    But all rather different from (same author) 8 days before:


    “Gatwick chairman blasts airport expansion ban”

    Needless to say the Chairman is : “former permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, who warned that ministers could not ignore the demand for on new runways”.

    The airline industry makes sure it knows what it is doing as always. Contrast this with rail 9or even bus….)