The Jetcraft Juggernaut

More Airplanes, More Airports, More Delays and More Pollution


San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown would like to get rid of “flitterbugs,” those vexatious turboprop commuter planes that account for just a tenth of the flights and two percent of the passengers passing through SF International Airport.

These small planes take up valuable runway space and control tower time. If only Mayor Brown could get people hooked on bigger, less-frequent planes, he could stave off an environmental disaster – expanding the airport into San Francisco Bay.

San Francisco’s problem is all too familiar to managers of the world’s increasingly busy airports. The Southern California Association of Governments sees demand at LA International growing from 60 million to 94 million passengers per year between 1997 and 2020, a jump of 64 percent. Orange County demand could grow 379 percent, from 8 million to 29 million. Airbus says the world cargo fleet is destined to double.

Until frequent-flyer programs and fare discount wars, the passenger side of the industry tended to be the preserve of jetsetters and business travelers, but the past couple of decades has seen air travel extend well down the income scale. Global air traffic has grown 9 percent per annum since 1960. By 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) believes that a billion passengers will travel by air in the US alone. Europe expects air travel to double by 2010.

Air Traffic’s Dirty Trail

Recently, the EPA added electricity utilities, coal and metal mining, chemical wholesalers, petroleum bulk plants and terminals, and solvent recovery and hazardous waste facilities to the list of sites that must lodge emissions data. Surprisingly, airports continue to escape this monitoring requirement despite the fact that arriving and departing planes generate a witch’s brew of nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, sulfur dioxide, naphthalene, known carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde, and dust [“Airports’ Poison Circles,” Winter 2000-1 EIJ].

The air-cargo sector is by far the worst offender. Many cargo jets are pensioned off from passenger work. Some can be up to 40 years old. Toiling in the night skies of Europe and America, these veterans are fitted with US-made “hush kits’’ that cut their noise to legal limits. But they remain 10 decibels louder than modern aircraft.

Their heavier loading requires these jets to remain on full throttle longer as they strain to gain a respectable altitude. People living near busy airports, especially in Europe, are being driven bonkers in the name of flourishing world trade. Outside Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, residents from surrounding districts have blocked access highways, demanding an overnight pause in takeoffs and

In 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that excessive or persistent noise “interferes with communication; induces sleep disturbance effects; cardiovascular and psycho/physiological effects; performance-reduction effects; annoyance responses; and [affects] social behavior.” The WHO argues that “nighttime aircraft movements should be discouraged where they impact residential communities.”

This nocturnal derangement prompted the Aviation Environment Federation’s “Green Skies” campaign (a coalition of 25 environmental and citizens groups from more than 20 countries) to launch a “Save Our Sleep” initiative in May 2000. This issue has now been taken to the European Court in Strasbourg. Mitigation can be costly, however: Chicago recently spent more than $78 million to soundproof 37 schools near O’Hare Airport.

A 1999 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that aircraft were responsible for 3.5 percent of global climate change through carbon dioxide (C02) emissions, and this could rise fourfold by 2050, with the cargo sector making a disproportionate contribution.

The IPCC assumed that fuel efficiency would improve by 40 to 50 percent by 2050 while progress in aircraft management would reduce fuel-burn by another 8 to 18 percent. Nonetheless, the sheer growth in air traffic (estimated at about 2 to 4 percent per year) is expected to swamp these gains. C02 emissions are expected to rise to 4 percent of the industrial total, ozone concentrations will increase 13 percent, condensation trails will increase by 0.5 percent and cirrus formation 400 percent.

In the meantime, airport planners are trying to meet traffic growth by adding runways, using new technologies and management systems, and building new airports. In the US, the Airports Expansion Act provides $40 billion to build new airports and to extend runways at 2,000 existing metropolitan airports.

An Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast device, linked to the satellite-based Global Positioning System, will enable planes to fly closer together. Under the FAA’s “free flight” concept, pilots would have more discretion to select paths within predetermined areas and would be encouraged to maintain “minimum separation” – i.e., fly closer together.

Airports – along with hazardous waste facilities, nuclear waste repositories, powerplants, prisons and road tunnels – are archetypal LULUs (locally unwanted land uses). There may be a societal need for them but no one wants one in their locality.

The International Civil Aviation Organization is due to debate a jet fuel tax as a way to encourage use of more fuel-efficient aircraft. At the moment, taxes on aviation fuel are illegal under the convention that regulates international civil aviation. Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research has suggested introducing an emissions-trading scheme for aircraft with a cap on C02 and the equal splitting of emissions cuts between departure and arrival countries. However, such schemes leave out the issues of water vapor and nitrogen dioxides.

The British air transport industry has proposed a voluntary agreement to lower the government’s air passenger duty up to 80 percent for the use of more fuel-efficient planes. It wanted the government to provide enhanced capital allowances for fleet revamps. The British plan also suggested that a portion of the air passenger duty could be used to invest in carbon offsets.

Australia’s two major carriers have signed up to the Greenhouse Challenge. With 97 percent of the energy usage consumed in takeoff, there has been an attempt to reduce this by adjusting takeoff angles and routes. Some carriers have begun to offer frequent flyers the chance to buy trees for carbon sequestration – in effect, asking their customers to share emission offsets. However, reports in the New Scientist cast doubt on the short-term wisdom of using trees as a carbon sink.

There is no escaping the fact that the sheer volume of global traffic will eventually erode any fuel and emission savings achieved by taxes or efficiency measures. Some believe the answer lies in fewer, bigger planes like the Airbus A3XX-100 – a 540- to 960-seat double-deck super jumbojet. But precisely the same thing was said of the Boeing jumbojet and look what happened.

Technical innovation can accomplish a good deal, but it won’t carry the day on its own. Eventually, the industry will have to commit to bringing ecologically sustainable development into its core business operations.

What You Can Do: To estimate your personal C02 emissions and see how different lifestyle changes can reduce your impact, visit For more information, visit the Global Commons Institute [], the Right Price for Travel Campaign [] and the Global Climate Change conference []. For more information, contact: US-Citizens Aviation Watch Association].

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