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Aviation: The environmental, technological and political challenge

by Lord Larry Whitty BALPA Honorary Vice-President

Early jobs in aerospace and a lifetime fascination with aviation, plus decades in trade unions and then a parliamentary career – including as a Transport Minister – were a good basis for me becoming one of BALPA’s parliamentary champions. I recognise the particular complexities of the employment situation that pilots operate in.

However, I am also a strong environmentalist, and with the problems of climate change and air pollution, I have to recognise the issues with the aviation sector. The sector must mitigate and adapt to climate change and commit to the road to Net Zero.

BALPA’s response to this has impressed me.

I welcomed the Interim Report from BALPA’s Environment Study Group and was pleased to see the Chair of the ESG, Jeremy Thompson, present their work to the BALPA AGM.

Published ahead of the Government’s Jet Zero Strategy, due to be published this Summer, the central premise of the paper – that there are sustainable forms of aviation and that they mostly require investment from the government as well as the industry – is absolutely valid.

There are now moves towards Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and various other technologies, from batteries to hydrogen, vying to reduce or eliminate fossil fuels as the mainstay of air transport propulsion. BALPA’s paper spells out the possibilities, uncertainties and drawbacks of most of them and – rightly – concludes that the targets for reduction in fossil fuels for 2035 and 2050 are feasible given serious investment in R&D on both fuels and aircraft.

The paper also spells out the impact of aviation fuel on other environmental issues like air quality, and explores aviation’s likely effect beyond fuel, in particular from the radiative effect of contrails, hence calling for contrail avoidance research and trials.

Lastly, it considers the need for effective international cooperation on regulation and safety along with the need for a drastic reduction of fuel tankering.

These are all things that are required for airlines to progress to a greener aviation sector and hold the political and social ‘licence to operate’.

Aviation is sometimes picked out by other sectors and by environmental campaigners as being the ‘bad boy’ in the push for Net Zero. A valid concern is that that the technology required to wean other sectors, such as road transport, away from fossil fuels is fairly clear and the timescale of fleet/vehicle replacement relatively rapid.
However, the BALPA paper shows that SAF is much closer than previously thought and that there is a commitment from aviation and aerospace companies worldwide to speed the adoption process up.

My one note of caution on the paper relates to issues of taxation and restriction. I believe that all industrial and transport sectors over the medium term will face substantially increased taxation and restriction on movement. Aviation is not unique nor will it be exempt.

BALPA’s call for large parts of Air Passenger Duty to be hypothecated to research and development of alternative fuels – whilst I agree in principle – is going run up against age old Treasury opposition to any form of tax hypothecation.

This is a fascinating paper and one which deserves much wider circulation amongst decision makers.

I admire BALPA’s commitment to develop policies that face up to the enormous environmental challenges of our time.