Despite a panel that was a touch skewed towards the aviation industry the Evening Standard’s debate on aviation was of a lot higher standard than you might expect. The debate, hosted by journalist Jon Sopel, brought together philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, Aer Lingus CEO Willy Walsh, CBI chief policy director Katja Hall, the Mayor’s adviser Daniel Moiland with the lone “anti-expansion” voice of the panel, Tamsin Omond leading member of Climate Rush, among other things.
Despite being pretty heavily outnumbered Tamsin Omond was able to make a real impression on the debate raising crucial issues and, in general, using sharper and clearer arguments than her fellow panelists. If she was a little defensive about not being a transport or aviation specialist she made up for it by calling John Stewart from the audience to speak and recognising the work of other campaigners.
What’s it all about?
Alain de Botton kicked off proceedings nicely by planting the discussion firmly in terms of the way businesses, including aviation businesses, by definition prioritise profits over social concerns, or those of the wider economy. He felt that speakers like Willy Walsh would be obliged to argue for aviation expansion regardless of the real case because corporations were legally obliged to maximise their profits. A little bit rum, but quite satisfying none the less.
Walsh on the other hand was concerned that the government appeared to have no aviation policy although he admitted he was no longer campaigning for a third runway at Heathrow as he felt it clearly was not going to happen. Indeed, all the panelists thought a third runway was out.
Which is why people like the Mayor’s adviser were for a “new [unspecified] airport” and Katja Hall of the CBI said that the government was “choking growth” by its refusal to expand capacity so that more trade could be opened up to China and India. Oddly she wrote off the Eurozone altogether, despite the fact that they are or closest trading partners.
However, in the face of the idea that airport expansion was stopping Asian investment Alian de Botton mocked the idea that someone would not open a factory here due to a fictious inability to get a plane here. This seemed slightly weak but lead Walsh to admit that aviation capacity was not the key problem, but the government’s anti-immigration stance and the difficulty in getting visa’s – so it’s border controls that are the problem not airport capacity it seems.
There were some interesting debates that could have done with some expansion, like the merits of hub airports over spreading aviation’s impact among a larger number of smaller airports. Likewise the motivations of politicians was drawn into the frame briefly when Walsh damned the “obsession with votes” and he then warned darkly of “green votes”, which sound horrid. Omond mentioned briefly the fact that the aviation industry pays no tax on fuel and regards itself as a “tax free industry”. Well worth exploring in debate I think.
Siobhan Benita tweeted during the debate that the government should make a noise reduction programme a key and non negotiable criteria of expansion” but it was clear that most proponents of expansion saw other factors (like social or environmental harms) as something that could be ignored if the economic benefits were large enough.
One million people are, apparently, disturbed by aircraft noise in this couuntry and the WHO has made it clear that there should be a limit of 55 decibels above which there are clear health impacts. However, without a clear site for a new airport discussing its impacts on the area seems a little abstract, but important to note.
The best contribution from the floor came from one audience member who made a very clear and simple point. If capacity is the reason we’re not flying to China and India why did Walsh’s airline launch, on that very day, a new Heathrow route to Leeds, just two hours away by train. If Chinese routes are needed then let the train take the strain for internal travel.
It takes us to the point on on how to use aviation capacity. Omond thought we should ban domestic flights but in general laid out a more cautious case that we’re using our capacity badly and that air travel should be seen as part of an integrated network where often other forms of travel are more appropriate. Alain de Botton pointed out that more people manning the desks at immigration control might be a good way of freeing up Heathrow’s capacity, but it was profit over making the airport more people friendly and faster experience.
This was an extremely attractive argument that before we start expanding airport capacity we need to make sure we’re using what we have effectively. If we’re in need of intercontinental flights then let’s scrap the short haul flights and ensure we have other land based (or indeed sea based) transport to take us the shorter distances. Omond argued that, in fact, there was no capacity crisis but a failure to think creatively about our transport and economic needs.
Her argument that we need to reinvigorate our “ancient rail system” and “build real infrastructure” to help fight economic and environmental problems went down well with audience on the whole. When we were told by Moiland that aviation was private enterprise but that a new airport would require from the public purse more than £25 billion over ten years it did seem that there was a have our cake and eat it attitude from the aviation industry.
Of course, Walsh was actually keen on moore high speed rail to take people larger distances to his airports and he stated clearly that HS2 made turning Birmingham into one of London’s airports a real opportunity. So trains in themselves don’t reduce air travel and may, in fact, increase emissions if we aren’t careful when planning.
There were votes of the audience showing that people were against a Heathrow third runway, but a significant minority for, despite the fact that no speaker spoke directly in favour. It was “more evenly split” on a new airport in the Thames Estuary and then asked whether anyone had changed their mind – almost no one put their hand up. Which highlights the fact that if you come out to a midweek meeting on aviation you probably have strong views on it already – but the meeting was still useful and informative, deepening people’s understanding of the issues.
De Botton’s view that we should have a referendum on airport expansion has some merits – but only if that is an informed debate. This debate certainly helped inform the enthusiasts.
For me the take away message was from Tamsin Omond who argued for a better not bigger aviation policy. Let’s use our existing capacity better, stop using flights when we could use other transport and have a proper debate on the role of aviation in our economy and the real consequences of this polluting, pampered industry.