The doctrinaire, dare I suggest dishonest, approach of the UK government to adding taxes to air travel to ‘save the environment’ comes with some bizarre consequences.

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, has announced a set of Air Passenger Duty charges which rise according to the distance a jet flies from London which would add £85, or about $212, to the outbound stage of a flight to Australia via Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong, but cost £20, or about $50, less for flights via Bahrain or Dubai.

So, while £85 might seem a triviality to anyone numbed by the experience of shouting a few lagers in London, or in a moment of insanity, taking a taxi to Heathrow, it involves a prodigious transfer of commercial advantage from the likes of Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Thai International to Emirates or Etihad because the former group hub or connect their Australian traffic feeds in SE Asia or Southern China, and the latter do so in the Middle East, much closer to the UK.

Let’s assume that there are around 400 Australia bound passengers on each of these A380s that these airlines apart from Cathay Pacific will all have leaving Heathrow each day by 2011. Three of them will be flown by Emirates, but Etihad will also have frequent flights in smaller jets on the kangaroo routes.

Confining ourselves to a single Emirates A380, it will be getting a commercial advantage over the other carriers worth $20,000 per flight (400 x $50). Or $7.3 million per year (365 x $20,000) per A380 load. Or $21.9 million a year if it has as currently intended, launched triple daily A380 connections from London through Dubai to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane by then.

What Emirates will do with the advantage who knows. It could add to its ability to undercut its competitors, or it could add to its profits. But it is a silly, obnoxious tax on travel that goes straight into HMG’s general revenue and means zip in terms of environmental savings, especially compared to the 20% or more reduction in greenhouse gases per passenger in terms of liberated fossilized carbon achieved through the choice of an A380 because of its fuel efficiency compared to other jets.

Earlier this year Qantas risk manager, Rob Kella, told a green flight symposium that the distortions caused by EU proposals for a similar distance based ETS calculation on international flights could see the sudden congregation of hundreds of jets at hitherto obscure airports near its borders prior to completing flights to Europe just to negate its unfairness.

Kella then pointed out that this would actually increased greenhouse gas emissions because the extra stop, and the additional ground taxying and climb and descent, would all add to fuel burn.

Reducing air transport greenhouse gas emissions requires more intelligence than the UK government has so far invested in dealing with these issues.

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