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The boom in flights from the UK's regional airports is coming at a hefty cost to the economy, with some regions losing around five times more revenue than they gain from aviation, according to new research published today by Friends of the Earth using data from the Office of National Statistics. UK air travellers are spending £15 billion more abroad per year more than visitors arriving in the UK, contradicting claims that airport expansion is good for the economy [1].

The situation could get a lot worse if the UK's regional airports, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds-Bradford, Newcastle and Bristol, expand to cater for further growth in passenger numbers. The number of trips abroad by UK residents would increase far more than the number of visitors to the UK. The proposed expansion would lead to an annual deficit of £30 billion by 2020. Popular tourist destinations, such as the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall, the Peak District and the Norfolk coast are particularly likely to suffer.

Friends of the Earth's aviation campaigner Richard Dyer said:

"We know airport expansion is bad for the environment. These figures show it is bad for the economy, too. UK businesses are missing out on billions of pounds every year and airport expansion will make this worse, encouraging people to take more and more short trips abroad."

The growth in cheap flights which is causing this drain on the economy is possible only because the aviation industry doesn't pay for its huge environmental impacts [2] and is exempt from paying most taxes like fuel tax [3]. Aviation is the fastest growing source of climate changing emissions. If airports expand and the number of flights continues to grow at the current rate, it will make it virtually impossible for the UK or EU to meet pollution reduction targets designed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change [4].

The huge increase in cheap flights is mainly due to better off people making more leisure trips on short breaks or to visit their second homes abroad, yet half of people in the UK don't travel by air at all in any given year [5],[6]. For example the average air passenger at Stansted has a salary of £46K [7].

This new research is part of Friends of the Earth's climate change campaign, The Big Ask, which includes a challenge to the Government to bring in a new law which will cut carbon dioxide emissions by three per cent every year [8].


[1] The figures were calculated by Friends of the Earth and Brian Ross from the `Stop Stansted Expansion' campaign using statistics provided by the Office of National Statistics. For full details see the Friends of the Earth briefing: `Why airport expansion is bad for regional economies' (PDF).

[2] HM Treasury estimates that the cost of global warming alone from passenger flights within and from the UK was £1.4 billion in 2000 (`Aviation and the Environment - using economic instruments' - 2003). A more recent study by INFRAS (`Infras Forschung Und Beratung' see: estimates the total external costs of passenger flights within and from the UK at £13.8 billion for 2000. Air Passenger Duty, the only tax on aviation, raised just £0.931billion in 2000

[3] Aviation fuel is untaxed. If it were taxed at the same rate as car fuel this would raise approximately £5.7 billion per year. Exemption from VAT amounts to £4 billion per year. Total tax exemptions to the UK aviation industry add up to at least £9.2 billion per year.
`Hidden cost of flying' (PDF) at Aviation Environment Federation (AEF)

[4] `Growth scenarios for EU and UK aviation' -Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, published by Friends of the Earth Trust:

[5] The top 3 social classes take more than 75 per cent of low cost flights, source: `The sky's the limit' - IPPR 2003

[6] In a given year less than 50% of the UK population flies, source: `A Poor deal' - HACAN Clearskies (DOC)

[7] Annual Air Passenger Survey - Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)

[8] People can support The Big Ask campaign by logging onto and asking their MP to back the Climate Change Bill.

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Published by Friends of the Earth Trust