Monday’s confirmation by the UK government that it would fund direct flights between London and regional UK destinations Newquay and Dundee with £4.3 million in public service obligation (PSO) aid might bring a measure of vindication for the European Regions Airline Association, which on November 19 criticized European national governments’ plans to ban certain short-haul flights in Europe in the name of environmental sustainability.
The UK plan, while seemingly only incidentally divergent from what the ERA sees as a dangerous trend of European hostility toward short-haul flying, might signal a subtle break between Britain’s and Europe’s approach to regional transport’s role in mitigating greenhouse gas pollution. Newquay is in Cornwall in the far southwest of the UK, serving a county with poor road and rail links to the rest of the country, while Dundee is in central Scotland.
According to the ERA, routes shorter than 500 kilometers account for only 4.3 percent of European air transport emissions, meaning measures to ban such flying would result in insignificant environmental benefits. Meanwhile, says the ERA, the short-haul segment serves as a testing ground for new technologies that would allow for a so-called green transition toward decarbonization. Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, for example, will first appear on short-haul routes by 2035, well before the technology reaches the long-haul sector.
Finally, building new rail infrastructure presents its own negative effect on the environment in terms of CO2 production, quite apart from its cost and time disadvantages.
“Aviation is already advanced in its development of breakthrough technologies with limited to zero environmental impacts, and will be ready to integrate these into the market within a much shorter timeframe than it will take to build a new rail network,” said the ERA in a statement. “It is therefore important that the EU and member states focus on solutions that can actually provide CO2 reductions and not hinder the progress with initiatives like banning short-haul routes. For instance, improving air traffic management through proper implementation of the Single European Sky (SES) would lower CO2 emissions of intra-EU flights by up to 10 percent.”
According to ERA general director Montserrat Barriga, regional aviation has found itself at a crossroads between innovation and the political and public pressure to reduce passenger volumes.
“Banning air routes is dangerous as it may be seen as good for the environment, but in reality, it is not for many reasons,” he said. “Firstly, routes with the equivalent alternative route by train are very few and in most cases, the rail network already has the market share anyway. Secondly, the initiative may result in an increase in passengers electing to use their cars to reach their destination. Thirdly, a lot of regional airlines operate routes with thin traffic, so it is unlikely that rail networks will replace sectors that are wholly unprofitable. Lastly, short-haul will be the first sector to test and deploy green technologies.”