Select Committee on Transport Thirteenth Report

7  Airspace regulation and aviation sustainability

Environmental constraints on aviation growth

143. Professor Callum Thomas of the Centre for Air Transport and the Environment at Manchester Metropolitan University told us that the rate of growth in aviation demand was outstripping the environmental benefits offered by new technologies and operating practices, meaning that the environmental impacts of the aviation industry could increase in the future. He argued that this was significant because there was a direct link between the way in which aviation addressed its environmental impacts and its potential for future growth. He pointed out that noise, air quality and biodiversity issues were already starting to constrain the operational capacity and growth of airports at the local level, while at the global level the implications of aviation for climate change was becoming an increasing concern, leading to calls for constraints on growth.[219]

Air navigation functions and the CAA's environmental remit


144. The CAA's airspace policy objectives are set out in the Air Transport Act 2000, which states that "the CAA must exercise its air navigation functions so as to maintain a high standard of safety in the provision of air traffic services".[220] While safety is the priority, the Act also sets out a list of secondary objectives, including a responsibility to reduce the environmental impact of aviation, in particular of greenhouse gas emissions and ozone depleting substances, local air pollution and noise.[221] The CAA is organised so that the exercise of its air navigation functions are discharged by the Directorate of Airspace Policy. The Directorate has responsibility for the airspace policy functions established in the Civil Aviation Authority (Air Navigation) Directions 2001 and the Guidance to the Civil Aviation Authority on Environmental Objectives.[222] The Guidance on Environmental Objectives states that, in relation to civil aviation:

"[…] negative effects on the environment should be minimised […] whilst the contribution of air transport to the economy should be maximised. Additional capacity should be provided only where this is economically and environmentally justified. This necessarily involves striking a balance between the needs of an efficient air transport industry […] and minimising the impacts on the environment and on the communities around aerodromes and under their flight paths. It is necessary to act proportionately, for example, by recognising that environmental dis-benefits may be justified when all sustainable development objectives are taken into account."[223]


145. The CAA explained that, in keeping with its environmental objectives, it made changes to airspace arrangements only after consultation and only where it was clear that an overall environmental benefit would accrue or where airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allowed for no practical alternative. It informed us that it had developed and published an Airspace Change Process which allowed for consultation on proposals with representatives of airspace users, aerodrome operators and providers of air traffic services and other bodies and individuals as appropriate. It said that, in addition, guidance was given on the representative bodies that must be consulted in respect to the environmental impacts of the change.[224]

146. Several witnesses argued that there was an uneven approach to the CAA's airspace change consultations, however. Leicestershire County Council told us that a consultation in 2004 on airspace changes around East Midlands Airport had been poorly carried out and did not include a number of local authorities, including Leicestershire. It said that, despite the CAA giving its approval to the change in July 2004, the airport itself decided to undertake consultations again, following representations by the local authorities. The County Council recommended that the Government should ensure that local authorities affected by airports and their activities became "statutory consultees" in relation to air space changes.[225] In addition, Lonek Wojtulewicz of the County Council argued that the CAA should be more transparent and explicit in its reasoning for its airspace change decisions.[226] The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) also noted a number of imbalances, and argued that the CAA needed to demonstrate its independence from the airlines and other users if it was to "secure confidence amongst the public in its consultation processes."[227]

147. The CPRE was concerned that the CAA's environmental responsibilities appeared to be secondary to its other non-safety objectives. It argued that, because the CAA had been created at a time when the concept of sustainable development had not been invented, it had been set up to be "primarily concerned with the regulation of airspace in order to address the needs of airspace users."[228] It pointed out that none of the CAA's 12 directors had an environmental remit and it argued that the CAA's financial reliance on those it regulated, and therefore on the physical movement of aircraft and passengers, risked generating a conflict of interest with its environmental responsibilities. It highlighted a statement in the CAA's Annual Report 2005 welcoming sustained growth in key activity measures as an example of such a conflict.[229]

148. In addition to balancing the needs of airspace capacity and the environmental impact of aviation nationally, it was evident that the CAA faced a difficult task in balancing the concerns of different groups at the local level. In relation to the airspace changes at East Midlands Airport, for instance, Mr Wojtulewicz accepted that the eventual changes had led to an overall reduction in the number of people affected by aircraft noise in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, but he was unhappy that the amount of controlled airspace over Leicestershire had doubled.[230] The CPRE explained that while it was "unacceptable" to locate the increasing environmental impact of aviation in over-populated areas, any move to spread it out over rural areas risked spoiling the tranquillity of the countryside—one of its defining characteristics.[231]

149. Paul Hamblin of the CPRE told us that technological improvements and changes to flight paths could produce simultaneous safety, economic and environmental benefits, but that the expansionary message of the Government's Air Transport White Paper meant that the CAA faced real problems in trying to achieve benefits in all three areas. Despite this, Mr Hamblin felt it was better to attempt to resolve those conflicts within the CAA rather than establish a separate body to deal with environmental regulation. Mr Wojtulewicz concurred, arguing that the creation of a separate body would lead to confusion as to who the ultimate arbiter was with regards to airspace changes.[232] Other witnesses argued, however, that sufficient account was already taken of environmental issues during airspace change considerations. Andrew Cahn of British Airways claimed that environmental issues were taken very seriously and that the approach taken by the CAA to airspace regulation was unresponsive to the needs of the market and too slow and cumbersome, with some changes taking four or five years to be approved.[233]

150. The CAA accepted that balancing the public's desire to fly and airlines' willingness to meet the demand with the impact on the environment was a challenge, but it argued that its Airspace Change Process gave proper regard to the environmental impact of the change. It explained that the Guidance on Environmental Objectives was due for review and said that it wished to see:

"[…] greater clarity in the revised Guidance so that proposers of airspace changes and those that are affected, both in the air and on the ground, are clear about the balance to be struck between commercial and public benefit and environmental impact."[234]

151. The Minister accepted that there was a tension between the CAA's roles of safety, economic and environmental regulator. She said that there was "an economic benefit to aviation", "an absolute bedrock expectation that safety is paramount" and "a growing and real and serious concern about the environmental impacts of aviation" which had to be addressed.[235] She argued that those areas could not always be reconciled to everybody's satisfaction, but said that all three of them had to be kept in a proper balance over time.[236]

152. In exercising its air navigation functions, it is clear that the CAA faces competing pressures in terms of safety, economic and environmental considerations. It is of paramount importance that the CAA should give top priority at all times to matters of safety. The increasing constraints placed by environmental limits on the ability of the UK aviation market to grow mean that the CAA must increasingly have regard for the concerns of those affected by the environmental impact of aviation. We recommend that, as a minimum, the CAA be required to consult more widely, more openly and at an earlier stage of the process with local authorities, interest groups and individuals concerned about the environmental impact of airspace changes. We recommend further that the CAA should be required to make clear the reasons for its decisions as a matter of course. We recognise that any extension in the scope of the CAA's consultation might lead to the airspace change process becoming longer, but we believe that it is vital that those affected by the negative environmental impact of aviation should be given the right to have their opinions heard.


153. A number of witnesses suggested that the CAA's environmental remit would need extending over the coming years. Professor Callum Thomas argued that the extent to which environmental issues were going to drive the industry in 20 years' time meant that this was an area which was going to have a far greater influence than it had in the past. He said that the industry would increasingly need to consider trade-offs between economic benefits and environmental costs.[237] Councillor Ruth Cadbury of Hounslow Borough Council argued that the CAA should have its remit extended to include the impact of aviation on the wider population, particularly those living next to airports. More specifically, the Borough Council argued that the CAA should have more responsibility, including the ability to set mitigation criteria and targets for airlines and airports, and impose sanctions on those failing to meet them.[238]

154. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) argued that the remit of the CAA needed to be re-examined in the light of the Government's Sustainable Development Strategy, with the CAA being given a statutory duty to promote environmentally sustainable development.[239] The CPRE raised a number of areas in which it felt the work of the CAA was not currently comprehensive enough. For example, it told us it felt that the UK lacked a strategic overview of the consequences of growth for airspace management, arguing that changes to the height and location of flight paths and stacking areas were made on a piecemeal basis, preventing a proper assessment of their cumulative impact. In addition, it argued that the CAA did not seem to be in a position to question the desirability or otherwise of meeting air traffic forecasts, and that its actions were therefore "quickly relegated to mitigating for environmental damage rather than avoiding it in the first place."[240]

155. By contrast, David Starkie of Case Associates argued that the CAA should not get "heavily involved" in environmental matters because standards in relation to noise and emissions were set at the international level and therefore were better regulated from that perspective, while local level environmental issues were better handled at a sub-national level.[241]

156. The CAA said that it was "broadly content" with the balance between its obligations and did not see the need for further statutory duties.[242] It told us that increasing public awareness of the impact of aviation and a willingness to voice concerns had made it "almost impossible" to reach a consensus in recent years, but it contended that the Government's sustainable development objectives would be achieved, provided the CAA operated in accordance with its statutory duties.[243] In response to the accusation that it made changes to the height and location of flight paths and stacking areas on a piecemeal basis, the CAA contended that air traffic controllers were able to use the full lateral and vertical extent of controlled airspace for the purpose of "achieving the most efficient and expeditious flow of traffic", and that such use would vary according to operational circumstances such as weather, volume of traffic and landing and take-off direction.[244]

157. To assist the CAA in giving proper consideration to environmental concerns, we recommend that the Government amend its Guidance on Economic Objectives to make it clear to the CAA and other stakeholders what balance it expects to be struck between commercial and public benefit and environmental impact.

219   Ev 156, paras 2.1-2.3 Back

220   Air Transport Act 2000, Section 70 Back

221   Local Government and the Regions, Guidance to the Civil Aviation Authority on environmental objectives relating to the exercise of its air navigation functions, January 2002, para 3 Back

222   Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, The Civil Aviation Authority (Air Navigation) Directions 2001, March 2001; Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Guidance to the Civil Aviation Authority on environmental objectives relating to the exercise of its air navigation functions, January 2002 Back

223   Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Guidance to the Civil Aviation Authority on environmental objectives relating to the exercise of its air navigation functions, January 2002, para 9 Back

224   Ev 1, para 45; Civil Aviation Authority, CAP 725, Airspace Change Process Guidance, May 2004 Back

225   Ev 176, paras 2, 6 Back

226   Q 551 Back

227   Ev 174, para 14 Back

228   Ev 174, para 1 Back

229   Ev 174, para 4; Civil Aviation Authority, Annual Report & Accounts 2005, June 2005, p16 Back

230   Qq 561-566 Back

231   Qq 567-573 Back

232   Qq 538-540, 543 Back

233   Q 357, 360; see also Ev 99, paras 3.2-3.3 Back

234   Ev 1, para 97; Ev 60, para 18 Back

235   Q 676 Back

236   ibid. Back

237   Q 410; see also Q 413 Back

238   Q 534; Ev 176, paras 1.3, 3.4 Back

239   Ev 174, paras 2, 5 Back

240   Ev 174, paras 6-7 Back

241   Q 416 Back

242   Ev 39, Q 29 Back

243   Ev 1, para 97 Back

244   Ev 39, Q 30 Back

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