Manchester Airport boss dismisses idea of a frequent flyer tax to combat climate change

The airport chief says he favours a cap on carbon emissions rather than reducing flight numbers.
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Manchester Airport bosses would not back a new frequent flyer tax to combat climate change, according to one of its directors who said it might not work.

Councillors in Manchester said they were ‘disappointed’ that the idea which was suggested by the UK’s Climate Change Committee has been dismissed.

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They were told climate change is a ‘clear and pressing priority’ for Manchester Airports Group, which also owns London Stansted and East Midlands airports.

However, it is not clear whether introducing a frequent flyer tax would lead to lower demand for flights, group director Neil Robinson told the councillors.

Rather than reducing the number of flights taken, he said the industry should be allowed to continue growing, but with a cap on carbon emissions created.

He said: “We’ve all come to enjoy flying. We all rely on flying – for business connections, for holidays, for visiting friends and family, for all the social and economic benefits.

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“Let’s not lose that unnecessarily. Let’s all focus on what we agree is the issue of emissions. If we can set out a trajectory for emissions that is consistent with the UK’s carbon budgeting, consistent with Paris, then we need to challenge the industry to live within it and the industry has a challenge to deliver that.”

What is already being done to help the environment?

The director for corporate social responsibility told councillors that airlines are already investing in new aircrafts which can be up to 20% more fuel efficient.

He explained how airspace can be ‘modernised’ with more efficient routes – work he is directly involved in as a director of the future airspace programme.

And he described sustainable fuels as a ‘big opportunity’ for the North West, speaking of the potential for waste to produce low carbon sustainable fuels.

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He added: “When we put those together, we can develop a plan that makes aviation a more sustainable industry – a cleaner industry – and we can continue to enjoy the benefits of flying, but do it within an acceptable limit.”

But councillors on the environment and climate change scrutiny committee at Manchester council said they were ‘shocked’ and ‘disappointed’ to hear this.

What stake do councils have in the airport?

All 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester are shareholders in the airports group and Manchester council owns 35.% which is jointly the largest stake.

Hulme councillor Annette Wright said the company, which is partly owned by private investors, is not prepared to take any steps itself to address the issue.

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She said that many residents she represents cannot even afford to fly abroad.

Most people in the UK do not fly abroad at all with 75% of flights taken by 15% of the population, research by a climate change campaign group revealed.

Referring to this research, Chorlton Park councillor Mandie Shilton Godwin argued that a frequent flyer levy would be the fairest way of reducing air travel.

Didsbury East councillor Linda Foley said it is ‘not scientific’ to say that taxing frequent flyers would not reduce demand – which the director denied saying.

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She said: “For you to say to me that taxation will not help to reduce demand – I just think that’s not honest.

“I think to talk about a cleaner way of flying, to talk about the solution being car sharing – again, it’s disingenuous.”

Responding to the comments by councillors, Robinson said he understood the ‘strength of feeling’ and appreciated how important the issue is to everyone.

He said: “I wasn’t just dismissing the frequent flyer tax without a suggested alternative. Because I do have a suggested alternative – that you set the industry the challenge of living within an emissions budget.

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“That has very positive effects because it challenges the industry to change and transition to a cleaner way of flying.

“Because if it doesn’t and it’s not successful in doing that, it won’t be able to grow, so it becomes an existential issue for the industry that it has to adapt and evolve and become cleaner.”

Prior to the pandemic, Manchester Airport employed 25,000 people directly with a further 76,000 jobs created indirectly through the airport’s activities.