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Engineering experts urge Government to rethink its plans for UK airport infrastructure

Engineering experts have urged the Government to rethink its plans for UK aviation and airport infrastructure development, including its decision to ban new runways at the country’s busiest airports.

In a new report published today, Rethinking Aviation, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) warns that a ‘better not bigger’ approach to airport runway capacity could seriously undermine the UK’s global connectivity and competitiveness, and see us lagging behind North European rivals that have been boosting their hub runway capacity at a considerable rate.

The ICE report acknowledges that the Government has ruled out building additional runway capacity in the South East as part of the aim to reduce aviation emissions, and agrees that unrestrained growth in demand for air travel without quick improvements in aircraft efficiency would damage the environment and needs addressing. But it urges Government to think carefully about the UK’s long-term airport infrastructure needs and the wider implications of its decision.

ICE Aviation Expert, Simon Godfrey-Arnold, said: "We agree the green agenda must be priority, and realise that when it comes to the UK’s airport infrastructure needs, there are some tough political and public choices. But we believe there are choices that can secure the best outcomes for the environment, society and the economy.

"Air transport and airport infrastructure are vital for the UK’s international connectivity and prosperity. As a trading island nation and popular tourist destination we depend on our ability to connect with the rest of the world. World class airport infrastructure helps attract inward investment, enables access to an international labour force and provides direct business and leisure links to growing economies around the world like China, Brazil and India.

"But Heathrow, with its two runways, is currently operating at 99% of permitted capacity. Journey times are increasing as aircraft become stacked up in queues both on the ground and in the air. Capacity constraints could result in international carriers abandoning our hub airport in favour of larger and more economically attractive northern European hubs, such as Amsterdam Schiphol which has five runways and Frankfurt which has three and a fourth in progress. If the Government is still against South East expansion after full consideration it must explore other options – but this does not mean simply squeezing yet more flights out of Heathrow."

The ICE report says the Government should consider whether, in the short term, the aviation industry can in fact make a real impact on UK emissions targets, due to its reliance on an industry led ‘tech fix’ to become more environmentally efficient and the fact that there is no other practical mode of travelling internationally.

It makes the case for international aviation becoming a ‘legacy’ carbon user in the short term, which would see the focus on cutting transport emissions shifting to other areas where alternative power sources are available and bigger emissions cuts can be achieved. ICE says this could help Government reopen the door to the prospect of additional runway capacity and also see it concentrating its efforts on implementing measures to help address the growing demand for air travel – such as viable alternatives to domestic flights.

Simon Godfrey-Arnold added: "With the bulk of aircraft reliant on current technologies until 2030, and no other form of international transport that really matches air travel, there is strong case for accepting international aviation as a ‘legacy’ carbon user in the short term and making emissions cuts elsewhere. But that doesn’t let industry off the hook – in the long term, it must step up aircraft innovation and replacement rates to fully contribute to emissions reduction targets."

The report – which looks at the role of regional airports, airport access, alternatives to domestic flights as well as airport runway capacity – also warns that high-speed rail alone will not be enough to make domestic short haul flights ‘a thing of the past’.

Simon Godfrey-Arnold continued: "We see huge environmental potential in high-speed rail and welcome Government’s commitment to improving connectivity, however encouraging the shift from air travel to new low carbon surface transport options like high-speed rail depends on its ability to compete with air travel on price, flexibility and connectivity, which is not always the case. If it cannot compete on these levels it won’t attract enough passengers to make it either cost or carbon efficient."

ICE calls for measures such as the introduction of a carbon price with a floor, which could help curb demand for air travel by raising the price of flying, therefore making high-speed rail a potentially cheaper option. ICE also urges the Government to immediately set in train the decarbonisation of the electricity generation sector to maximise the full environmental potential of surface alternatives such as high speed rail.

Concluding, Simon Godfrey-Arnold, said: "The upcoming Aviation National Policy Statement presents a timely opportunity to fully consider the UK’s long term airport infrastructure needs, and the options that ensure there is sufficient airport infrastructure capacity to improve the UK’s connectivity and maintain our competitiveness, while also meeting our climate change goals. ICE is keen to work with Government and facilitate a sensible debate."

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