Minister for Transport Lord Macdonald launched the Air Transport Consultation Document, described as “the important first step in developing a 30 year strategy for the aviation industry” on 12 December. Its resulting strategy will eventually be set out in a new White Paper on air transport, which is not expected until 2002. Environmental concerns are at the forefront of the consultation, as numbers of passengers passing through UK airports are predicted to increase from 160 million to as high as 460 million in 20 years’ time.

The document examines effects of aviation on the environment and the best means of limiting these through either regulation, economic instruments or voluntary agreements. It recognises current aviation’s contribution to climate change, indicated by the radiative forcing effect of aircraft, estimated at 3.5% of the global total of greenhouse gas emissions from all human activities. Using estimations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the document says that aviation emissions are a small but growing proportion of global emissions, accounting for as much as 7% of GHG emissions by 2050.

The document also says that noise levels at many of the largest UK airports have fallen over recent years, citing Heathrow Airport as one example. There, the number of people living within the daytime 57Leq contour, which is taken to mark the “onset of significant community annoyance”, has fallen from 1.5 million in 1979 to about 331,600 in 1999, in spite of growth in aircraft movements and average aircraft size. The main reason for this has been the phasing out of noisier aircraft in Europe.

Despite this, the consultation says that people often perceive air travel as growing noisier, which may reflect a decreasing tolerance of noise and environmental disturbance. The Government says that it is keen that improvements in the noise climate should continue where practicable, taking account of the economic effects of growth.

The local effects of pollutants such as NO2 are also considered with the document adding that the impact of aircraft emissions on air pollution in the vicinity of airports is, in most cases, less than that of emissions from road traffic to and from airports.

The Government says that it intends to ensure that “aviation meets the external costs it imposes, including environmental costs”, but that evaluation of the costs is imperfect. In the UK, work is being carried out in relation to the external costs of noise and local air pollution, with details of this work included in the document.

“Demand for air travel seems set to continue to grow. Our forecasts show that demand may almost double over the next 15 years,” Macdonald commented. “Yet some of our major airports are already close to the limits of their current capacity and expansion of airports almost always has significant environmental impacts. Growth in aviation is also likely to result in an increase in emissions that contribute to climate change. We therefore face many difficult issues associated with the growth of aviation.”

The British Airport Authority (BAA), said efforts were already being made to limit the impact of noise and air pollution and road congestion around the airports. Airlines are encouraged to turn their engines off on the ground and use tow trucks to move the aircraft around airports and fast train services, such as the Heathrow Express, have cut road traffic, BAA says.

The report on the four-year public inquiry into BAA’s plans to build a £2bn fifth terminal at Heathrow, complete with a recommendation, is soon to go to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who will make a final decision on whether the terminal goes ahead. BAA, airlines and businesses support the project, but environmental groups, local councils and local residents are firmly against it. On 11 December Manchester Airport unveiled its controversial second runway and said it planned to overtake Gatwick as Britain’s second busiest airport.

The deadline for responses to the Government’s consultation is 12 April 2001. The consultation document will be followed next year by a series of regional consultation documents. The responses to these will also feed into the new White Paper. They will be based upon a series of regional studies of air transport services across the UK.

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