“We will never impose unnecessary and heavy-handed measures on you, the British people. We will still meet our international commitments and hit Net Zero by 2050.”
Those were Rishi Sunak’s words to the UK on 20 September, as he unveiled five of these “measures” that the Tory party would be putting a swift stop to. It was unclear who had been proposing these initiatives in the first place – surely, as the majority ruling party, the Conservatives themselves would have had to put them forward in order to retract them? – but regardless, one in particular jumped out at me. And it wasn’t even the one about not having to sort our rubbish into seven different bins...
Among the five “heavy-handed measures” that the PM was magnanimously putting the kibosh on – each one bonkers in its own distinct way – was this gem: “New taxes to discourage flying”.
We will never impose unnecessary and heavy-handed measures on you, the British people.
We will still meet our international commitments and hit Net Zero by 2050. pic.twitter.com/XjXQzGVaCN
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) September 20, 2023
Thank goodness for that! We certainly wouldn’t want any more heavy-handed taxation on the already heavily taxed aviation industry!
Well, I say heavily taxed. It doesn’t pay any fuel tax, as such. Jet fuel, known as kerosene, is completely tax-free – unlike the fuel used by every other form of transport. In the UK, the headline rate on standard petrol and diesel for vehicles is 52.95 pence per litre. Diesel used for passenger rail travel in the UK is subject to fuel duty of 11.14p per litre, while taxes make up almost 40 per cent of the total electricity costs for train operators. There’s a reason that flight you saw from London to Edinburgh is half the price of the equivalent train journey: one form of transport is required to pay fuel tax, the other isn’t.
Oh, and there’s no VAT on plane tickets either, in case you were wondering – unless you happen to be travelling by private jet. “Zero rating applies to all scheduled flights irrespective of the carrying capacity of aircraft”, says HM Revenue & Customs. We may still have to pay that 20 per cent tax on the vast majority of goods and services in this country, but not when it comes to air travel.
There’s a reason that flight you saw from London to Edinburgh is half the price of the equivalent train journey
But fear not, there is still one tax flights are subject to in the UK: Air Passenger Duty, or APD. This was a tax first introduced in 1994, with one of the original stated aims being to offset the environmental impact of air travel.
Although... I suppose, if we’re being brutally honest, the rate of APD airlines pay has nothing to do with the efficiency of their aircraft; and, while we’re here, it’s probably worth mentioning that the money is in no way ring-fenced to fund, for example, sustainability projects or invest in decarbonising transport. It just flows into the country’s general coffers.
The rate of APD is calculated by the length of flight from London to the capital city of the destination country, and is split into four bands: “Domestic”, band A (0 to 2,000 miles), band B (2,001 miles to 5,500 miles) and band C (over 5,500 miles). There are then three rates for each destination band depending on the class of travel, with those flying economy paying less tax than someone in business class.
But rather than using this tax to encourage travellers off planes and onto trains for domestic journeys, the government decided to halve APD to just £6.50 in economy on flights within the UK for the 2023-24 financial year. This rate is rising in April 2024, mind you – by a whopping 50p. The most popular routes, meanwhile, won’t be subject to any increase at all next year; APD has been frozen for all categories within band A, covering all flights from the UK to Europe. So if you’re flying with a budget airline to a European destination, you’ll be subject to the same modest £13 tax on your flight.
OK, I suppose when you see it all written down, perhaps aviation isn’t heavily taxed at the moment – but what about all these “new taxes to discourage flying” Rishi’s bravely putting a stop to? They sound like a potential problem?
Here, I’m afraid, your guess is as good as mine. The truth is, no legislation to curb aviation growth in any way – including introducing new taxes to encourage people to swap from carbon-heavy air travel to lower-emissions forms of transport – has been even vaguely suggested by anyone in power. Quite the opposite: in 2021, Rachel Maclean, the then-minister in charge of government policy on the future of transport and decarbonisation, said people needed to keep flying in order to help cut carbon emissions (she also said said that flying was one of the things that “make life worth living” and that the government would not place restrictions on it). Meanwhile, the Tories’ “Jet Zero” strategy, outlining the road to decarbonising the UK’s aviation industry by 2050, makes no mention of reducing flights or promoting lower carbon transport alternatives by any means, including taxation.
The reality is this: year-on-year, the number of flights and passengers continues to grow unabated
Some groups have lobbied for the introduction of a frequent flyer levy, ensuring the highest polluters pay more for their travel habits rather than penalising those who can afford it least; some people have been calling for kerosene to be taxed, brought in line with all other types of travel, so that air travel no longer gets special treatment. But these measures – arguably the opposite of “heavy-handed” when you consider that 15 per cent of people take 70 per cent of flights in the UK, and that aviation is responsible for 2–3 per cent of all carbon emissions globally, more than most countries – are being proposed by environmental campaigners, sustainability charities, climate scientists, researchers and activists. No one in government has suggested anything of the sort. Perhaps it would be a good thing if they did.
The reality is this: year-on-year, the number of flights and passengers worldwide continues to grow unabated, as do the related carbon emissions and other substances that have a warming effect. Advances in aircraft tech and “sustainable” aviation fuel have significant obstacles in terms of infrastructure and cost that ensure they can’t be scaled up to meet demand in the short- to medium-term.
Perhaps the most laughable part of all this is that the majority of the public are in support of policies that would reduce flying, according to research. In 2021, the biggest analysis of policy preferences ever published found that 89 per cent of people supported raising the costs of flights and introducing frequent flyer levies in order to tackle the climate crisis. More than 21,000 Britons were surveyed on which policies they preferred in order to meet the UK government’s carbon emissions targets for 2030 in a poll by WWF and thinktank Demos. Raising flying costs, particularly on frequent flyers, was one of the top five most popular measures.
Scrapping “new taxes to discourage flying”? The only thing worth celebrating would be if they were to start introducing some. Still, at least we can all stop sorting our rubbish into those seven imaginary bins...