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The University of Southampton
Centre for Democratic Futures

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Blue Skies or Turbulence Ahead? The sustainability of regional airports

Summary of Centre for Democratic Futures event

8 June 2022

Planned expansion of Southampton Airport (UK) has been met with opposition in the form of protest, submissions to local government. Similar dynamics have been witnessed across the UK and in other countries as national governments place greater emphasis on sustainability goals. Recognising this, the The Centre for Democratic Futures engaged four speakers on this important topic.

The session was moderated by Dr. Brian Moss, a member of the Centre’s Steering Group and lecturer at the University of Southampton.

Dr. Christiaan Behrens highlighted the variable classification of airports as hubs and non-hubs and variable connectivity role they possess by consequence. This was borne out in the very competitive nature of the aviation market. Here Chris observed greater concentration of connectivity in fewer main hubs, greater concentration of network carriers there, and “footloose” activity by low-cost carriers across the EU after the 1990s. This underscored the constant benefit- externality trade-offs local airport infrastructures involve, e.g. impacts on house prices and reproductive health. Chris further noted that airports did not necessarily make a local economic “pie” any bigger but most likely cause a different distribution of the “pie”. He therefore cautioned that social cost benefit analysis, while useful, should be adopted appropriately in deciding the future of any airport. Finally, he cited the example of Maastricht Aachen Airport to demonstrate his points, showing how it decided in June 2022 to expand moderately with noise restrictions being a primary consideration in the final decision process.

Prof. Lucy Budd provided discussion of the problematic classification of UK airports. The contentious nature of categorising across government, the aviation regulator and sectoral body, Lucy argued, reflects a wider story of the state encouraging of airport development in the 1920s, followed by scaling back in the 1950s, and privatisation in the 1980s. This story places revenue generation and costs centre stage in terms of sustainability questions, measures impacted by Covid and growing concerns with climate issues. Alongside these developments, she noted that staff shortages, issues over ground access, airports holding less attraction as investments, but some re-bounding of passenger numbers in regional airports all beg questions as to what might occur next. Concluding, Lucy queried the commercial viability of greener technology advances as well as the investments already made in aircraft that have long lifespans and associated costs that first had to be recouped. These suggested that the demands now placed on air transport would not be easily resolved.

Ms. Angela Cotton, was a member of one group opposing Southampton Airport’s expansion. She addressed beneficial claims made by the aviation sector and highlighted sustainability issues related to aviation at different geographic levels. These included the comparatively low level of new employment promised but high CO2 emissions, and low financial supports for mitigating aviation noise and environmental harms locally. Angela queried the pursuit of low-cost leisure travel by regional airports, including Southampton, which brought low value outcomes. At the national level she maintained that the UK’s Jet Zero strategy set unrealistic goals and the priority given to aviation came at the expense of domestic food production and other sectors. Finally, at the global level, Angela argued that the projected reliance on electric planes and hydrogen and sustainable fuels to offset environmental concerns was not yet feasible. Instead, she called for a modal shift, reducing tax advantages for aviation, and supporting road and rail movement of people and goods.

Dr. Carlos Monterrubio focused on the role of local populations and politics in assigning differential weights to the costs of airport development and operation and its risks. He maintained that to date more research attention has focused on the economic and health impacts at the airport operation stage. This has overshadowed the social impacts at earlier planning and construction stages. Carlos also set out the impacts of airport operation, relocation, and expansion, but pointed to the important role played by views among local communities that surround airports. He showed how these attitudes and resistance to an airport development could have real impact. Drawing on his case study of Mexico City’s proposal for a new airport, opposition to its development culminated in a 2018 referendum that ultimately cancelled the project. This resulted in losing investment, existing jobs, and breaking contracts with constructors and suppliers. Carlos finished by underscoring the importance of including people’s views in airport projects at all stages.

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