European pressure group calls for the closure of all 'small' regional airports that can’t make a profit; such facilities are key for corporate travel and regional development

1 August, 2019

The assault on the air transport industry by environmental pressure groups is relentless. Buoyed by the impact made by recent demonstrations organised by Extinction Rebellion which closed down central London for a week and by statements made by politicians in France and Norway which advocated placing limitations on the number of flights, pressure group Transport & Environment (T&E) recently weighed in to the debate and keeping the bandwagon rolling.

T&E says its mission is to promote, at European Union and global level, a transport policy based on the principles of sustainable development. “Transport policy should minimise harmful impacts on the environment and health, maximise efficiency of resources, including energy and land, and guarantee safety and sufficient access for all,” it says.

The global aviation industry produces 2-3% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and that figure isn’t growing, but the industry is. It is currently responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport sources, but is going to significant lengths to minimise its impact. Latest generation jet aircraft are over 80% more fuel efficient than those in the 1960s and USD1 trillion has been spent on 12,000 new aircraft this decade.

T&E’s proposal now is that small European airports that cannot achieve profitability within five years should be closed down. These airports provide vital connectivity into regions, support regional economies and are well supported by corporate business travel.

The proposal raises more questions than provides an environmental answer. Does it refer to public ones? Private ones? Public-private ones? Airports owned by foreign entities? And shut down by whom exactly? Individual governments? The European Union? But, ultimately why should profitability be the determinant factor?

Apart from the fact that an airport could be in the red for five years and then produce a thumping profit in the sixth to be spent wholly on de-icing runs-off, electric cars and bicycle lanes, surely the most important factor surely is how comprehensive its environmental policies are.

And don’t forget that the biggest “culprits” are often the larger airports. Is it coincidence that even now London Heathrow airport’s third runway is still not set in stone, as it battles to ward off ever more legal challenges to the runway that are based on environmental arguments (and not just noise, amongst the major concerns are pollution caused by road traffic)?

Even the Department for Transport has suggested recently that the runway may not be justifiable under existing environmental regulation, having had over five years to consider that possibility and that is even after Heathrow officials have bent over backwards to accommodate every environmental demand thrown at it.

Airports Council International (ACI) Europe was quick to take aim at T&E’s statement. ACI Europe said its study is based on an "erroneous interpretation" of current EU guidelines on state aid for the aviation sector (something else T&E has argued against) and a "total disregard for the societal value of air connectivity". It argued regional airports "serve as a lifeline for their communities" by providing essential air services and economic and social integration through air connectivity.

They most certainly do in remote parts of countries like Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, in fact all of the Nordic countries including Greenland, melting ice caps or not. Also in Greece and anywhere else where there are islands, such as the Canaries, Balearics, Azores, Cape Verde and so on. It would be almost impossible to get around Cape Verde without air travel, there are only a handful of ferries as an alternative and they pollute more anyway.

One does suspect that T&E’s thinking is only of downtown airports like London City and Stockholm Bromma, which regularly attract adverse pollution-related criticism, whether justified or not, rather than the bigger picture. ACI adds that EU guidelines "purposely support the vital role" of smaller regional airports in regional development. And as regional airports only account for 3% of total EU air traffic, closing them would have a "negligible impact" on reducing CO2 emissions.

ACI Europe concluded: "Calling for the closure of all small regional airports on account that they are structurally not profitable... would not only isolate but also alienate regional communities, with considerable economic, social, political negative impacts".

Munich airport’s soon to depart CEO Dr Michael Kerkloh said recently that air transport is "being democratised", adding: "It's now a commodity for the younger generations, a standard element of many lifestyles." These generations will ultimately decide the path for the industry’s future.