Eyes turn to the sky

AIR travel has become one of the most controversial topics of the day. In the third of our six special features on the growth of air traffic and the impact on Suffolk's skies, PAUL GEATER and RICHARD CORNWELL ask the views of the politicians and government who have the power to change the future.

By Paul Geater

AIR travel has become one of the most controversial topics of the day.

In the third of our six special features on the growth of air traffic and the impact on Suffolk's skies, PAUL GEATER and RICHARD CORNWELL ask the views of the politicians and government who have the power to change the future.

POLITICIANS representing voters in Suffolk show a remarkable degree of agreement, on the subject of cheap flights and the effect they are having on the skies over Suffolk.

All those we spoke to said the costs to the environment need to be reflected in fares paid by passengers - although they did differ on the prospects for the future.

All are opposed to the expansion of Stansted Airport, with the exception of Ipswich MP Chris Mole who said the key was to ensure that aircraft are modern and efficient.

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East of England Euro MP Richard Howitt has more need than most to fly - he has three offices, in Cambridge, Brussels and occasionally he has to work from Strasbourg in France.

He said: “I don't want to be a hypocrite. Like many people I take advantage of cheap flights and there is nothing wrong with people using planes.

“But we do have to recognise that the growth in cheap flights cannot continue at the rate it has been going over recent years - and that aircraft emissions are a major contribution to global warming.”

“It is not right that airlines do not have to pay duty on aviation fuel which is why they are able to offer such low fares.”

The French government had introduced a carbon offsetting scheme which levies a charge on airlines and channels the money raised into energy-saving schemes in the third world. Mr Howitt said: “That is the kind of model I would like to see the whole of Europe looking at. This is not an issue that can be only dealt with on a national basis.”

South Suffolk Tory MP Tim Yeo is a former Conservative environment spokesman and said the growth of low-cost airlines had to be curtailed for the good of the planet - and his constituents.

Mr Yeo said: “It is ludicrous that aviation fuel attracts no duty while flying is so bad for the environment and that must be addressed.

“It is not something that governments like doing, but there has to be increased taxation to make flying more expensive and the money should be diverted to less damaging forms of transport.

“I would like to see taxation paid by airlines and their passengers used to provide more investment in the rail network - so it is cheaper and faster to travel from London to Paris or Manchester by train than it is to fly.”

Mr Yeo remains opposed to the expansion of Stansted airport: “Over the last three or four years there has been significant increase in the number of planes flying over the area and it is really shattering the peace and quiet of this lovely area. “There is no need for the airport to expand - we don't need it to provide more and more cheap flights to places that are better served by trains,” he said.

Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer was one of the longest-serving environment secretaries this country has had, and is now a leading light of the Conservative Party's 'quality of life' task force.

He regularly flies all over the world to conferences and meetings.

He agreed that low-cost flights do pose a threat to the environment and to the peace of his constituency - but warned there was no simple solution. He said: “The cost of fuel only represents about ten per cent of the costs of low-cost airlines, and while the price has doubled over the last year it has had no effect on passenger numbers.

“Putting extra tax on aviation fuel is unlikely to have the effect people want.”

However he did favour taxing travel - if there were reductions in other taxes and the money raised was used for more environmental transport schemes.

He said: “There are 39 flights a day from London to Manchester. It would be much better to spend money on upgrading the rail route because that is a much better way of travelling.

“Each person who flies from London to Paris does 13 times more damage to the environment than if they went by train - yet there are still empty seats on the Eurostar trains.”

Mr Gummer said that to retain public support, any increase in taxation on air tickets would have to be offset by reductions in other taxation.

“There is a real danger that if the Chancellor just taxes air travel and doesn't reduce taxes anywhere else that the environment will be seen as a negative problem.

“It would give power to the elbow of (Ryanair boss) Michael O'Leary in his quite unpleasant campaign against tax changes.”

Ipswich Labour MP Chris Mole is the only politician we spoke to who was not opposed to the construction of a second runway at Stansted. He said: “The key to the problem is to ensure that aircraft are as modern and efficient as possible. Newer aircraft have far lower emissions than older ones.

“I think there are concerns if Stansted is too dependent on low-cost carriers. It needs to provide a balance of services serving the whole region.

“When I was on EEDA we worked very hard to persuade Continental to open up a transatlantic route - and that is really what I would like to see increasing from Stansted,” he said.

Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff supports his party's stand on increasing duty on aviation fuel to make flights more expensive.

A spokesman for him said he remained opposed to the expansion of Stansted and wanted to see it revert to what was originally intended to be - an international airport serving the region.

“We feel it is ridiculous that there are people coming to Stansted from all over the country to take short- haul cheap flights. That is not want the region needs.

“There is a need for an international airport for the eastern region for business and long-haul passenger flights. But that is not what we have got.

“As it is Stansted is just contributing to global warming and is creating more pollution for people living under the flight paths,” he said.

Are you worried about the impact of air travel on global warming? Should we be paying more to fly? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail EveningStarLetters@eveningstar.co.uk

See The Evening Star every day this week for a special feature on the growth of air traffic affecting Suffolk as part of our Air Fair campaign.

GOVERNMENT officials say all the indications are that air travel will continue to grow fast in the next 30 years - and the number of passengers could double.

That will mean a demand for more flights, and more planes in our skies - and more of them going over Felixstowe and Ipswich. By 2010 we could see 1,600 planes a day flying over Suffolk, but by 2035 it could be double that number.

The Department for Transport says demand will fuel the increase in air traffic, but it believes the desire to fly for holidays and business, with cheaper and cheaper flights, means we have to prepare now.

“UK air travel has increased five-fold over the last 30 years. Half the population now flies at least once a year. And freight traffic at UK airports has doubled since 1990,” said a spokesman for the DfT.

“Britain's economy increasingly depends on air travel, for exports, tourism and inward investment. The aviation industry directly supports around 200,000 jobs and indirectly up to three times that.

“Aviation links remote communities and helps people stay in touch with friends and family around the world. It brings businesses together and has given many affordable access to foreign travel.

“All the evidence suggests that air travel will continue growing over the next 30 years. But if we want to continue enjoying its benefits, we have to increase capacity.

“But we can't add to airport capacity regardless of the environmental cost. So, we need a balanced approach which recognises the importance of air travel, but which also tackles environmental issues.”

The government recognises more must be done to reduce the environmental effects of aviation, setting limits for emissions from planes to keep air quality under control and prevent environmental damage.

Today's aircraft are 75 per cent quieter than jets in the 1960s, but more can still be done including further research into low-noise aircraft, making more use of noise-related landing charges; and stronger measures by airport operators to insulate properties.

All proposals to expand airports will have to go through the planning system.

The main expansion proposals will all mean more flights going over Suffolk - extra passenger and freight traffic at East Midlands Airport, and a second runway at Stansted, and possibly a new runway at Heathrow, or Gatwick.

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