Long-haul flights will not be truly sustainable for the next 20 years either

December 21, 2023

In episode 39 of ESG (Even Samen Gevat), Marloes and Aldert speak with Richard Emmerink, director of strategy and airport planning for the Royal Schiphol Group. He explains Schiphol’s eight-point plan for quieter, cleaner and better air travel.

Richard Emmerink is an econometrician, and his professional life has revolved around transport – including public transport. He obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on tailbacks and road-pricing, was one of the co-founders of Abellio (subsidiary of Dutch Railways), worked as the CFO of Connexxion and, as Schiphol’s director of strategy and airport planning, is currently responsible for ‘devising the future of the airport all the way up to thinking about how to make that really work.’ In the podcast, he goes into depth on Schiphol’s eight-point plan to make the airport future-proof and to stay that way.

But first, just to be perfectly clear, Schiphol is owned mainly by the Dutch government: it has both a social and an economic function, with a ‘dual till’ model. ‘We’re not allowed to make any net profit on air travel’, says Richard, ‘but we’re a regular commercial business when it comes to the shops, parking and property.’ Everything that Schiphol does is a balancing act between often opposed interests: the airlines that want to fly more and the neighbouring communities and the climate that tell us we need to scale back. Schiphol’s role here is to make smart decisions. The emphasis in the past 20 years was on the airlines, more flights and growth. In the future, the neighbouring communities and the climate will be taken more into account.

Schiphol’s aim with its eight-point plan is to be proactive and take steps that will directly reduce noise pollution in the area and to indicate what’s needed to make the aviation industry truly sustainable. For that purpose, Schiphol therefore supported the plan that Minister Harbers unfortunately withdrew to reduce the number of flights to 460,000 in the short term (from 500,000 in 2019). This would have been the first direct step for the neighbouring communities. Schiphol finds it very disappointing that those plans have been scrapped. ‘And for that matter, 460,000 is actually an increase in flights since the Covid-19 crisis, not a decrease.’

Schiphol Airport

Point 1: clear rules for noise and emissions

‘Just work towards the amount of noise you’re allowed to make and how much CO2 emissions are permitted, all the while sticking to the Paris climate agreement’, says Richard. Good national and international laws and regulations, such as the EU’s emissions trading system (ETS) and its Fit for 55 plan, are key in this respect. But the Netherlands itself could also start by taking its own steps.

In general, and for Schiphol too, there’s an 80/20 ratio of short-haul flights to long-haul flights. The latter constitute 20% of all flights at Schiphol but count for 80% of carbon emissions. Those are really the flights we need to do something about if we want to tackle the climate crisis. The problem is that almost nothing is paid for the pollution that those long-haul flights create – at least not yet. So in other words, they pollute for free. In addition, long-haul flights in particular are extremely difficult to make more sustainable. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are the only option, but scaling those up will be a slow process. Currently only 1% of the fuel at Schiphol is sustainable, and worldwide that’s just 0.1%. Because of that slow scaleup, long-haul flights over the coming 20 years will still not be sustainable. For these flights, Schiphol is therefore in favour of strengthening the international policy by expanding the EU ETS to include flights outside Europe and, until that time, introducing a distance-based flight tax in the Netherlands just like in neighbouring countries Germany and the United Kingdom. The revenue from this additional flight tax could be used to speed up the pace at which the aviation industry is made more sustainable. That would solve two problems at the same time.

For short flights, there are actually alternatives. For the time being that’s just the train, but Richard says that’s only attractive for ‘major flows’: routes with lots of passengers travelling from city to city, such as the Amsterdam-Brussels-Paris line and the train to London. European policy needs to be used to make train travel the standard option for these destinations, like in France where they’ve now banned certain domestic flights. In the future we might even see electric and hydrogen planes, but that will still take a long time for the larger aircraft – too long to remain within the 1.5 degrees of the Paris agreement.

Point 2: the noisiest aircraft are no longer welcome at Schiphol

Good laws and regulations for noise and emissions also ensure that airlines fly with fuel-efficient and quieter aircraft, but ‘at Schiphol the noisiest aircraft are no longer welcome.’ That goes for the old Boeing 747s, for example. We want to phase those out. ‘They’re a real sight to see, but they’re old and make a lot of noise.’

Point 3: nighttime closure

Richard hopes that nighttime closure will be included in the new government agreement. Many political parties have also made this part of their party platform: ‘We’ve proposed closing at night for landings between midnight and 5 a.m. and for departures between midnight and 6 a.m.’ Why? ‘The past few decades we’ve lost touch with the surrounding communities, and most complaints are about flights during the night. So I feel we need to do something concrete fast. Most of the other major airports in Europe already have a nighttime closure, by the way.’ On balance, such a nighttime closure would mean a decrease of 10,000 flights during the night; it would not affect Schiphol’s network of connecting flights.

Point 4: no more private jets or short-haul business travel at Schiphol  

Schiphol wants to remain an international hub, and that means ‘making tough choices in tough times.’ No more private jets: per passenger, these create much more noise pollution and are much worse for global warming than other flights.

Point 5: no extra runways

This point has been achieved. Schiphol advised the minister to scrap the reservation of land for a second, parallel ‘Kaag’ runway (named after a small village beyond the southwestern end of the runway), which the minister has done.

Point 6: annual investment of €10 million in the surrounding area and residents  

Schiphol wants to improve the living environment of residents in the surrounding area, for which purpose €10 million will be made available every year. That money will be spent in consultation with people in the surrounding area; we really want to listen to their needs. ‘For example, we’ve been hard at work with a startup company that’s developing sound-proofing glass. That vibrates in a certain way so you hear less external noise within your home.’

Point 7: protecting cargo transport

Only 2.5% of all flights are for cargo, but ‘cargo traffic is simply less likely to have an exact time schedule, which means those flights often lose their historical rights.’ Richard says that their time slots need to be protected in the interest of the economy, ‘but at the same time we do want cargo aircraft that make less noise. So yeah, we certainly want them to stay, as long as they fly with quieter planes.’

Point 8: people first

This point is not only about the people in the surrounding area but also those on the airport apron. ‘They also deserve to work in a healthy environment.’ Such as the luggage handlers. Although those people are not employed by Schiphol, the airport is going to ensure that functional lifting devices (for heavy luggage) are placed everywhere as from 1 April 2024. ‘No other airport has that, otherwise we would have been able to solve this problem much sooner.’

Vision for the future

Richard Emmerink names various developments and things to think about that could determine the future of Schiphol and air travel. These two are the most important:

  • Eighty per cent of the flight traffic at Schiphol consists of short-haul flights. A good combination of trains and flights is part of the solution. ‘With European policy that stimulates train travel, we might be able to replace up to 80,000 flights at Schiphol with the train. That means the train must become the standard option for destinations that can be comfortably reached by train. So if a passenger comes to Schiphol in the future, the international train needs to give them the same experience as an aeroplane! In addition, several alternatives to flying on kerosene are also under development. Electric flying is one of those alternatives, ‘but it’s still the question whether we will really be able to get aircraft for 150 to 200 passengers that can fly a decent distance of 1,000 kilometres, for instance.’ The weight of the batteries needed for electric aeroplanes will be decisive. ‘If you’re talking about shorter hauls, like up to 500 kilometres, that will probably work.’ Since most of the gain on emissions can be obtained on the long hauls, work is also being done on sustainable fuels, but all of those solutions are still very expensive, and it will take a long time to scale them up.
  • Which brings us right to one of the main points that Richard makes: all of the costs related to flying – the ‘external costs’ – should be passed on. That also goes for the costs of climate change. ‘Economists call that the internalisation of external costs. If you price those costs, flying will become more expensive, which means people will start flying less, and the airlines will have an incentive to become more sustainable. This is what we’ve been advocating on a European and on a national level. That’s lacking on both levels at this time, which is actually a disgrace with the current climate crisis.’

Passing on external costs (such as via EU ETS and a distance-based Dutch flight tax) to create the right economic incentives and therefore flying relatively less are, in fact, the most obvious solutions to more sustainable air travel in the short term. If we then return this tax revenue to the aviation industry to make it more sustainable, we’d also promote new economic growth in a key sector for the Netherlands, where we can also utilise the expertise of leading companies and institutions. 

ESG Even Samen Gevat is a podcast series (in Dutch) in which Aldert Veldhuisen and Marloes Bergevoet talk to accelerators of the sustainable transition. They discuss topics related to the “E”, like green energy, CO2 emissions, raw materials, biodiversity, the “S” of health, diversity and inclusiveness and the “G” such as laws and regulations and international cooperation.

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