NATS research shows growing majority of UK public concerned over environmental impact of aviation but curbs on flying resisted
Fri 23 Aug 2019 – Research carried out on behalf of the UK’s air traffic service provider NATS shows growing concern by the flying public over aviation’s impact on the environment. Its annual study of attitudes to flying, carried out by IPSOS MORI, showed 60% of those interviewed wanted to see reducing emissions made the top priority for the aviation industry, a rise of eight percentage points on the previous year. Although still a minority, 38% – a rise from 30% in 2018 – were willing to pay some form of a climate change levy on the price of a plane ticket. Meanwhile, NATS has revealed it saved airlines 113,500 tonnes of aircraft CO2 emissions last year, equating to £18.4 million ($22.4m) in fuel costs, and bringing total emissions reductions achieved since 2006 to 8.4 million tonnes. Its latest annual report, however, NATS admits it will fall short of a 2008 commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by an average of 10% per flight by 2020.
Despite the concerns over the negative environmental impact, the number of respondents to the survey who felt flying should be discouraged fell from 47% to 40%. While there is much public debate over UK airport expansion, only 16% were against it, with support for expansion growing from 48% in 2018 to 57% this year. A sizeable minority (45%) of respondents said they did not consider the environmental impact of their flights, with just 31% saying they did.
Around a 1,000 people throughout the UK were interviewed for the survey as part of NATS’ annual Aviation Index of public opinion, with 60% saying they had flown by a commercial airline within the previous 12 months and 4% never having flown. The highest proportion of those who had flown within the previous 12 months came from the 18-34 age group.
“What these results show us is that people are concerned about the real impact aviation has on our environment, but that flying and global connectivity is also totally intrinsic to our way of life and will be even more so after Brexit,” commented Ian Jopson, Head of Environment at NATS, which is expecting this summer to be the busiest on record for flights in the UK.
“What’s needed is a way to radically improve the efficiency of every flight, part of which is down to more efficient aircraft, but we can also make a big contribution by transforming how our airspace is structured and managed.”
NATS is enabling flights to operate continuous descents and direct routes that burn less fuel but Jopson said a more radical wholesale redesign was needed of the UK’s flight paths given many air routes had been designed 50 years ago.
Alongside many of the UK’s major airports, NATS said it would be bringing forward proposals at the end of next year on how to modernise UK airspace, which would likely include fuel-saving measures to keep aircraft higher for longer and reducing low-level stack holding at airports.
In its corporate responsibility report for 2018-19 just published, NATS says it delivered 18 airspace initiatives during the year to help reduce aircraft CO2 emissions. These included air traffic management efficiency improvements and tools for reduced holding, working with airlines for improved flight planning, airspace changes and the introduction of electronic flight strips in London Terminal Control, said by NATS to be one of the most complex areas of airspace in the world.
Launched in 2008, NATS set a target to reduce UK aviation’s CO2 emissions by an average of 10% per flight by 2020. By 2015 it achieved an interim milestone of 4% per flight but having reached 6.9% in 2018-19, NATS has conceded the 10% by goal will be missed. This is partly due, it says in its CSR report, “to increased concerns about the negative environmental and social impact from aircraft noise and the plan was delayed pending further evaluation of how it could be delivered with a balanced approach to noise impacts. Alternative options were considered, with priority given to small-scale initiatives that did not affect noise, leaving more complex opportunities to feed into our 2020-2025 plan.”
NATS is also subject to an annual target set by the UK Civil Aviation Authority that measures airspace efficiency. The metric, known as the three-dimensional inefficiency score, or 3Di, is designed to become more challenging each year. However, NATS reports it remained within the target range in 2018 and is on track to do the same in 2019.
“As an island nation, aviation is key to our role in the global marketplace and isn’t likely to be replaced in the foreseeable future,” said Jopson. “Our industry therefore has to find a way to reduce our impact on the environment and we’re very proud of the progress we’ve made, alongside our other responsible business initiatives, but we know much more needs to be done.”