An open letter: alternatives to new runways

Published in the Observer, 21st June 2015.

Any moment now, the Airports Commission will finally publish its recommendation for new runway capacity at either Heathrow or Gatwick. What will be missing from this report is a third option which would be preferred by many: no new runway at either airport.

Britain’s skies are already some of the busiest in the world, and Howard Davies knows that these expansion plans cannot be made to fit with the UK’s long-term commitments under the Climate Change Act. Contrary to aviation lobby rhetoric, a new runway is not needed to allow more international business flights, which have been declining steadily since the turn of the century. The hub airport argument is a smokescreen. In reality, growing demand for air travel is concentrated in the short haul leisure sector and among a small, wealthy minority of the population. It is more of these flights that a new runway will in practice service.

This growth in flights is driven by air fares that are kept artificially low through generous tax subsidies; aviation is exempt from fuel duty by international treaty and zero rated for VAT alongside wheelchairs and baby clothes. Yet these tax breaks almost exclusively benefit the richest section of British society. Our analysis of passenger survey data shows that 15% of the UK population are taking 70% of all our flights, while half of us don’t fly at all in any given year.

That’s why we are calling today to replace Air Passenger Duty with a ‘frequent flyer levy’ that taxes travellers according to how often they fly, shifting the burden away from families flying to their one annual holiday and onto the frequent flyers who are driving expansion. Our research shows that this 'polluter pays' approach would enable the UK to meet our climate targets without making flying the preserve of the rich - and without needing to build any new runways.


John Stewart, HACAN
Stewart Wallis, New Economics Foundation
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK
Joe Jenkins, Friends of the Earth England, Wales & Northern Ireland
Stephen Joseph, Campaign for Better Transport
Manuel Cortes, TSSA Union
Tahir Latif, PCS Union Aviation Group President
John Christensen, Tax Justice Network
Duncan Exley, Equality Trust
Richard Murphy, Tax Research UK
Ed Gillespie, author, London Sustainability Commissioner, Co-Founder Futerra
Andrew Simms, author, co-founder of the New Weather Institute & Fellow of NEF
Elena Blackmore, Public Interest Research Centre
Jamie Andrews, Loco2
Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland
Colin Howden, Transform Scotland
Leo Murray, 10:10 & Fellow Travellers