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Plane Truth: Aviation's Real Impacts on People and the Environment

Published by Pluto Press, October 2013



1. The Future of Flight

2. Feeding the Fuel Tanks

3. Local Environmental Impacts

4. Threats to Wildlife and Farmland

5. Green Garnish

6. Air Cargo

7. Industrial Cargo

8. Arms, Aid and Accidents

9. Concrete and Overcapacity

10. Counting the Costs

11. Real Estate and Revenue Streams

12. How Aviation Keeps Growing





The actual book is packed with examples of the issues that are raised, and (I hope) a lot more interesting and livelier than this outline of the contents.


1 The Future of Flight

There is intense rivalry between global aviation hubs for ‘world’s busiest airport’ status, but the rapid growth of airports in Dubai and Bejing reflects an overall shift of economic power from west to east. Globally, the aviation industry and governments anticipate that the number of air passengers will double over the next 20 years. The climate change impacts of aviation, in comparison with other modes of transport, make flying one of the most environmentally damaging activities and it is the preserve of a minority who are, in global terms, comparatively wealthy.

Technological progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft has been limited. Under current trends, marginal fuel efficiency improvements will be outpaced by aviation growth. Frequent flyers have a horrendous carbon footprint and the impact of private jets is even higher. Industry bodies have a track record of avoiding regulation to enforce reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

2 Feeding the Fuel Tanks

To counter the rising oil price, and diminishing supplies, conventional jet fuel is being supplemented with biofuels, made from plants. Biofuels which are in use, and likely to be commercialised, fail to live up to industry claims that they do not use, or displace, food crops. Jet fuel can be made from jatropha, an inedible crop. But, when it was planted all over Africa and Asia, there was massive crop failure. Prospects for scale production of algal or cellulosic biofuel (from inedible fibrous biomass) are dim. Edible crops, including camelina and sugarcane, are used to feed planes. Furthermore, analysis of the entire supply chain shows that the greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels can be even worse than fossil fuels.

3 Local Environmental Impacts

Airports blight communities living around airports and under the flightpaths. There is compelling evidence of increased risk of serious health damage, including cancer, from the cocktail of pollutants emitted by aircraft. Aircraft noise raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. In cold conditions, uncontrolled discharge of de-icing chemicals into waterways damages aquatic life. In Asian countries with patterns of intense rainfall, airports built on flood plains increase neighbouring communities’ susceptibility to flooding. Leaks in aviation fuel supply can spread long distances through waterways and contaminate groundwater for decades. The worst incidences of fires and explosions in airport fuel supply have occurred far from airports, at depots and refineries.

4 Threats to Wildlife and Farmland

Airport expansion has an adverse effect on wildlife and birds are particularly severely affected. Deterring them from airports, and destroying them should that fail, is an essential part of airport operations. When a plane taking off from La Guardia in New York landed safely in the Hudson River, after a bird strike damaged both engines, airports around the world stepped up their destruction of birdlife habitats and culling. ‘Greenfield’ airports, on undeveloped land, frequently encroach on farmland and wildlife habitats, leading to protests worldwide. All over India, land acquisition for greenfield airports meets with resistance from rural communities facing displacement. The emphasis of the expansion is for domestic flights, journeys which could be covered by investment in surface transport.

5 Green Garnish

All the environmental damage of aviation is hidden from passengers. Passenger terminals, the only accessible area of airport sites, are ever more controlled to present a ‘green’ image. Buildings are garnished with solar panels and windmills, which have no bearing on the airports’ core business of servicing flights, by far the most environmentally damaging aspect of operations. Airports and airlines run environmental awareness campaigns, lecturing passengers on how to green their lifestyles. This detracts attention from, and does nothing to improve, the industry’s environmental performance. Superficial airport ‘greening’ projects form part of a wider manipulation of passengers’ perceptions as terminals are made more attractive with gardens, architectural flourishes, artworks and advertising.

6 Air Cargo

From the passenger terminals, aviation appears to be all about people going on holiday. The role of air cargo, carried in the bellyhold of passenger flights and in dedicated freighters, receives little attention. Transportation of goods by is interdependent with other transport modes - road, rail and ship. Only about 1-2 per cent of global trade is air freighted, and it is reserved for high value goods. The main air export from poor southern countries is perishable food and flowers, requiring energy intensive refrigeration at all stages of the supply chain from farm to stores, known as the ‘chill-chain’. Ethiopia’s perishable air exports are growing rapidly, even though millions of citizens go hungry. The Ethiopian government makes repeated appeals for food aid, as it funds gigantic airport refrigerators for air exports of food and flowers.

7 Industrial Cargo

Air freight of components and capital equipment supports the globalisation of manufacturing, with production broken down into stages at geographically dispersed manufacturing and assembly sites. This ‘airlinked assembly line’ is exemplified by Boeing and Airbus’ global supply chains for manufacturing of aircraft. Heavyweight industrial equipment is delivered in world’s largest aircraft and aviation plays an important role in the oil industry, from exploration and production to clean up attempts after oil spills. Aviation is becoming even more strategically important to fossil fuel extraction as ‘extreme oil’ projects – venturing into ever more northerly latitudes closer to the arctic, deeper under the oceans and at high altitude - are difficult to access. Air freight’s pivotal role in the mining industry began in the 1920s and continues worldwide.

8 Arms, Aid and Accidents

Many airlines have been involved in the transport of illicit arms to Africa, and some of these airlines have also been contracted to deliver humanitarian aid to help victims of conflict and natural disasters. In some instances, carriers have delivered illicit arms and humanitarian aid to the same conflict zones. Several carriers that have been involved in transfer of illicit weapons are also implicated in Africa’s abysmal air safety record, which is due to poor infrastructure, inadequate regulation and an ageing fleet. DR Congo’s air accident rate is particularly appalling, and the extraction of minerals that has fuelled protracted conflict is dependent on air services for supply of equipment. Worldwide, aviation has been a key tool in wars waged by states, from its inception when early hot air balloons were used for reconnaissance missions to modern day rendition flights.

9 Concrete and Overcapacity

Government expenditure on airport expansion in the US has continued since the economic crisis – including stimulus funds and subsidies for remote airports and private jets. Construction of the first US greenfield airport this century, Northwest Florida Beaches, which has impacted heavily on environmentally sensitive wetlands, was taxpayer funded. Vast expenditure on concrete, and federal funding, has continued for expansion of Chicago O’Hare Airport, even though its traffic has been declining for many years. Illinois already has one almost totally unutilised greenfield airport, MidAmerica, languishing in the midst of farmland. In spite of the evident excess airport capacity, another greenfield airport is planned in the state, on farmland at Peotone, to serve as a third airport for Chicago.

10 Counting the Costs

Aviation places a heavy burden on taxpayers, including for airport construction, duty-free shopping, tax-free fuel for the vast majority of international flights and a majority of domestic flights, subsidies for aircraft manufacture and export credit for sales. Since the economic downturn, governments in all world regions have bailed out national airlines. Supposedly, the environmental damage of aviation expansion is compensated for by economic benefits, but there are doubts over the relationship with tourism income and attracting investment. Even the purported relationship between aviation growth and economic growth is tenuous.

Job creation appears to be expansion advocates’ trump card, but airport mechanisation systematically eliminates employment. Expansion creates more jobs for robots than for people. More airports are becoming ‘destinations in their own right’, generating income from retail, hotels, office space and industrial facilities. Ever more of the revenue from aviation induced tourism and trade is captured by the airport and does not benefit the host community.

11 Real Estate and Revenue Streams

All over the world, major airport developments are built to be surrounded by future urbanisation, rather than to serve established urban centres. The key to this new airport-centric urban form, called the aerotropolis, or ‘ airport city’ is that the airport owns large tracts of the land surrounding it. Airports’ revenue from shops, hotels, office space, entertainment complexes and industrial facilities on this land cross-subsidises fees for airlines and airport upgrade and expansion.

Aerotropolis projects all claim to act as an ‘economic engine’ for the wider region, but the primary objective is growth on airport land. The developments also act as economic parasites, drawing traffic and trade from the host community. A number of aerotropoli generate income from land that is not built on, from food crops, biofuel plantations and golf courses. Ambitious aerotropolis developments in Asia are being met with protests over large scale land acquisition. Several US airports generate income from oil and gas wells, including shale gas.

12 How Aviation Keeps Growing

Aviation’s continued growth, post-recession, is largely due to non-aeronautical revenue and subsidies. The upward trajectory of the oil price does not inevitably mean the demise of aviation. Forecasts for future aviation growth, used by the industry and government, must be viewed with scepticism as they are based on the ‘predict and provide’ model whereby capacity and supporting infrastructure is built and subsidies encourage the projected traffic increase. Furthermore, much of the projected growth is in short-haul and domestic flights, which can be replaced with surface transport.