A possible government deal to cut the cost of flights to save regional airline Flybe is “the exact opposite” of what is needed to tackle climate change, environmental campaigners have argued.
According to numerous reports, chancellor Sajid Javid is considering cutting air passenger duty (APD) – a tax on passenger flights from UK airports – on all domestic flights to save Flybe from collapse. The firm has said it runs 38% of all domestic flights within the UK.
“The government cannot claim to be a global leader on tackling the climate emergency one day, then making the most carbon-intensive kind of travel cheaper the next,” Greenpeace UK’s policy director Doug Parr said.
Cutting the cost of domestic flights while allowing train fares to rise “is the exact opposite of what we need if we’re to cut climate-wrecking emissions from transport,” he said.
“The aviation sector has got away for years with increasing its carbon footprint. The last thing we need is another incentive for them to pollute more.”
Friends of the Earth campaigners have also called on the government to invest more in the rail system, instead of making flying around the UK cheaper.
“These short UK trips are exactly the ones we need to avoid,” said Jenny Bates, calling potential plans to cut APD “unacceptable” and “reckless”.
Green MP Caroline Lucas said cutting APD was “utterly inconsistent with any serious commitment” to tackle the climate crisis.
Flybe – which operates more UK domestic flights than any other airline – has long argued that APD unfairly affects its domestic customers.
Under current rules, domestic passengers are charged a £26 levy for a return trip in the UK – £13 for each time they take-off from a UK airport – while those flying to and from countries less than 2,000 miles away only pay the charge on their trip out of the UK.
APD generates billions for the Treasury each year, with the fee expected to be worth £3.7bn in 2019/20.
Javid was also reportedly set to speak to business secretary Andrea Leadsom and transport secretary Grant Shapps about whether Flybe’s APD bill – estimated to be £106m this year – could instead be deferred for three years.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of trade body Airlines UK – which represents UK carriers – called APD “an anomaly that particularly hurts regional aviation”.
“Levying £26 in tax when – in the case of Flybe – the average fare is £52 is not sustainable when so many other costs on airlines are increasing,” he said.
“APD is not and never has been an environmental tax. It has no bearing on the ability of the aviation industry to decarbonise and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.”
This will instead be achieved by other measures, Alderslade said, including “airspace modernisation”, the development of sustainable aviation fuels and cleaner planes.
If it collapsed, Flybe – which carries eight million passengers a year and employs more than 2,400 people – would be the second UK airline to fail in four months, after Thomas Cook went bust in September.
Asked on Tuesday whether he intended to save the airline, Boris Johnson said it was not the government’s job to “step in and save companies that simply run into trouble”.
“But be in no doubt that we see the importance of Flybe in delivering connectivity across the whole United Kingdom,” he told the BBC.
“We’re working very hard to do what we can, but obviously people will understand that there are limits, commercially, to what a government can do to rescue any particular firm.
“But what we will do is ensure that we have the regional connectivity that this country needs.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell argued against “bailing out a company through a tax cut”.
Instead, the government “should look at targeted assistance to support routes judged on economic, environmental and social grounds”.
In the House of Commons, Labour’s transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “Slashing airport passenger duty across the board would make a mockery of the government’s supposed commitment to climate emissions.”
“Aviation is set to be the biggest source of emissions by 2050 with ministers planning for demand to double.”
It is the second time Flybe has come near to collapsing. In February 2019, the airline was bought by a consortium consisting of Virgin Atlantic, Stobart Group and Cyrus Capital following poor financial results.
The consortium, known as Connect Airways, paid just £2.2m for Flybe’s assets but pledged to inject cash into the airline to turn it around.
However, the fact that the airline held rescue talks with the government over the weekend indicates the financing requirements have become greater than expected.