Aviation makes the world smaller, bringing nations, businesses, and people together. As such, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) describes aviation as the "Business of Freedom". But that freedom comes at a cost that airports and nations are finding more difficult to administer.
Local impact vs. national benefit
In many countries, the process of obtaining permission to develop broadly involves a comparison of local impacts with local benefits to assess whether a proposed development is sufficiently beneficial to be granted permission. This is a model, however, that means airports face a more difficult planning environment.
Airports support regional and national economies, creating benefits for businesses and people potentially far removed from the airport’s physical location, but it is the people living closest to the airport who experience the harm caused by reduced air quality and increased noise.
Those planning systems, frequently drawn along local government lines, see and hear vociferous objections from local residents. The diversified benefits are often not as well presented and are often less vocally expressed, with the airport itself as the loudest—but biased—voice in support of the development.
Understanding an airport’s share of the national carbon budget
This picture is increasingly problematic for airports as politicians, governments, and the public focus on the carbon impact of an airport’s development and the aircraft operations and emissions it enables.
While noise is a reasonably simple enough issue for planners to assess and ascertain an acceptable scale of impact, carbon is a national and global issue with nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Yet, carbon budgets are currently weakly aligned to individual sectors, let alone to individual sources or airports.
This landscape will no doubt change as countries better understand and manage their NDCs, but how individual airports share the budget at the moment remains uncertain.
Forecasts vary and headwinds remain, but air travel is broadly expected to return to pre-pandemic levels over the next couple of years with long-term growth patterns thereafter. That gives airports a few years of capacity headroom. But airports that struggled for capacity before the COVID-19 pandemic will soon contemplate their next phase of expansion. Since these past two years spurred an increased public focus on carbon budgets, airports will seek permission to grow in more scrutinized times.
Successful implementation through policy guidance
More than ever, airports need clear policy guidance to plan developments confident in their alignment with local and national planning policy and national carbon policy. This also applies to the local planners tasked with assessing and approving applications as much as with airports. Without national guidance, they will not have sufficient knowledge or authority to apportion a nationally held carbon budget. The alternative is for the central government to determine all airport-related applications. However, that is likely to be cumbersome and insufficiently nimble for all but the most significant of applications of national importance.
The UK, for example, does have such a national planning approval process—a Development Consent Order (DCO)—granted by the government. Even then, as the government has not yet apportioned carbon budgets between specific industries, it is in no better of a position to determine an application.
As airports return to growth and ambitions to expand in support of their regional and national economies, there is a pressing need for governments to hasten the disaggregation of their NDCs and provide certainty to airports and guidance to planning inspectors on how they should respectively develop and assess airport planning permission applications. Without that guidance, the brave will apply, and national policy will develop through trial and error.