Taxing flight

In the name of saving the world, environmentalists want to stop air travellers from seeing it.

Pete Smith

Topics Politics

A cynic might suggest that the government’s reported proposal to double air passenger duty is an easy £800million windfall to the Treasury. But the air tax debate goes a lot deeper than this. While New Labour has sought to shake off its image as a ‘tax and spend’ party, one way of avoiding criticism on tax is to claim its ‘green’ credentials.

After the failure of a variety of initiatives to convince us to pay a voluntary ‘green’ levy on airfares, environmentalists have welcomed the idea of making it compulsory. Responding to the proposals, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner Roger Higman argued: ‘Increasing air passenger duty has an unstoppable logic and we would fully support it as an effective way to reduce the demand for flying.’ (1)

Unsurprisingly, airlines have lobbied against such a move, with British Airways suggesting that: ‘It is hard to justify another rise in duty when it will service only to put fares up and provide extra revenue for the treasury.’ (2) More bluntly, Easyjet pledged to fight any tax increase ‘tooth and nail’ (3).

Green critics of air travel point out that the airline industry receives £7billion in tax breaks and subsidies each year, including tax-free fuel (4). But it is difficult to think of an industry that does not in some way receive government handouts, either directly or indirectly. It is unlikely that air travel’s critics would support cuts in subsidies to organic farming, for example.

The accusation that airlines receive ‘unfair subsidies’ sounds like an attack on big business and management. But why don’t environmentalists drop the middleman in the argument, and say what they really want: to increase the price of airline tickets so that most of us simply can’t afford to fly. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? I for one prefer to view the government aid to airlines as a welcome subsidy on the public’s holidays.

Perhaps the real issue underlying the debate about subsidies, is how we as a society assess aviation. Do we welcome the opportunities that it brings, and resolve to deal with any environmental consequences – or not? Far being from an abstract debate, this is an issue of pressing concern. The government is soon to publish a White Paper on aviation. And according to statistics outlined in the government consultation The Future of Aviation, the number of passengers flying into and from UK airports is estimated to rise from 180million this year to 500million a year in 2030 (5). By comparison, in the USA it is estimated that there are 2million air passengers each day (6).

In the past, the opportunities opened up by the expansion of air travel would be viewed in overwhelmingly positive terms. The chance to travel so far, so frequently and so cheaply would for my parents’ generation have almost seemed like science fiction. Today, by contrast, the growth in aviation is viewed much more negatively.

Like many others, I have taken the opportunity offered by cheaper tickets to travel for nothing more worthy than relaxation and fun. Along the way I have experienced other countries, met people from other cultures and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Green critics would no doubt label such trips as ‘unnecessary’ and quote the arguments of sustainability as reasons why I shouldn’t have travelled at all.

The Brundtland Report (1997) provides perhaps the best-known and most widely accepted definition of sustainable development: ‘development seeking to meet the need of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ (7)

This gets to the nub of the argument. The world that environmentalists want to pass on to our children is one where people rarely travel by air. This is a world, in short, where needs are met, rather than desires or dreams.

Peter Smith works for a leading independent travel company.

Read on:

Flying lows, by Pete Smith

Mothballing ambition, by Pete Smith

(1) Brown plan to double air tax, Guardian, 28 October 2003

(2) Alarm at planned airport tax hikes, Guardian, 1 November 2003

(3) ‘Tax threat to cheap air fares’, Evening Standard, 28 October 2003

(4) Friends of the Earth

(5) The Future of Aviation, UK Government

(6) Life in the Air: Surviving the New Culture of Air Travel, Gottdiener, M (2001)

(7) The Brundtland Report, UNESCO

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Topics Politics


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