Lower emissions, bigger economic impact: Time to celebrate our world-beating aviation sector

Ian Jopson
Britain's aerospace manufacturing sector generates annual exports of £26bn (Source: Getty)

The environmental impact of UK aviation, from CO2 emissions to noise, has been a key focus of the debate about the sector in recent years. And that focus has only intensified over the last year, with ongoing political discussion about airport expansion in the South East.

While the government continues to agonise over where to expand capacity, with no decision before June at the earliest and suggestions recently that the EU referendum might result in even further delay, the aviation industry has been focused on how it can continue to reduce its environmental impact.

Sustainable Aviation, a unique coalition of UK airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers, has spent the last ten years tracking the progress the industry has made and setting out the potential to further reduce aviation’s CO2 and noise emissions through a series of Road Maps. These show how we can continue to deliver reductions in emissions through a mix of new aircraft and engines, improved operations, including better use of the UK’s airspace, and through the development of new technologies and fuels.

With the debate on airport expansion forcing aviation higher up the political agenda, however, we felt the time was right to look at the other side of the coin: aviation’s contribution to the UK economy and wider society.

Our new report, published this week, for the first time collates data from across the sector to show how aviation contributes to UK plc. The picture that emerges is clear: aviation is a fantastic UK success story.

Today, Britain has the third-largest aviation network in the world, and the second largest aerospace manufacturing sector. The aviation sector has a turnover of over £60bn, contributes £52bn to our GDP and almost 1m UK jobs are directly or indirectly supported by it. Our aerospace manufacturing sector also generates annual exports of £26bn, has a global market opportunity of £3.5 trillion over the next 20 years and employs over 100,000 highly skilled people in the UK.

The report also examines the wider, and often overlooked, social benefits that derive from UK aviation. Aviation gives people the freedom and ability to travel for holidays, to study or to see friends and relatives. This enables us to connect to the world and helps to drive our vital tourist industry, with nearly three quarters of overseas visitors to the UK in 2014 arriving by air.

Alongside travel and tourism, the sector generates significant economic and social benefits through investment in our workforce. It supports over 3,500 apprenticeships and other training schemes, helping to build the highly productive workforce the UK needs. Many of these are delivered through bespoke programmes such as the NATS engineering apprenticeship scheme, launched in 2015, which will train a new generation of fully qualified air traffic engineers. Others in the sector have set up dedicated training facilities, such as easyJet’s new £2.7m facility, opened last year.

Unlike some sectors, which have clustered in a small number of places, aviation’s reach is widespread, with hardly a constituency in this country without an aviation business. The sector has led the way in building strong links with local communities. Manchester Airports Group (MAG), for example, has established employment and skills academies at its three largest airports which aim to break down barriers to local people gaining employment at MAG airports.

The sector also invests £1.7bn annually in R&D – investment vital to keeping UK aviation and aerospace at the cutting edge of technology and maintaining Britain’s pole position as having the largest aerospace industry in Europe.

But we are very clear: alongside these benefits come significant challenges. We recognise that the advantages must be balanced against aviation’s environmental impacts. The work that we have been doing over the past 10 years demonstrates our determination to ensure that aviation continues to deliver significant benefits to the economy while also effectively managing its impact on the environment.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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