It’s well known that all sectors of aviation have been heavily impacted by Coronavirus, and pictures of empty halls in our major airports typically hit the headlines. But what about the UK’s smaller airports? Nick McFarlane examines how they are faring and offers a fresh perspective on a green future for this sector.

Financially, UK aviation is dominated by international travel from larger airports. According to the CAA, in 2019 international air transport movements were about three times the domestic number and of course international movements are larger with more passengers. 

However, international travel is more affected by the travel restrictions at both ends of a sector and by restrictions at hubs. For example, the USA was responsible for 9% of all international travel passengers in 2019 but that market was essentially closed until August 2021 when a blanket traffic ban on UK travellers was lifted (even though the US was moved to the UK’s Amber list in May 2021).

To investigate the impacts on small airports, we analysed the CAA’s published statistics on airport movements (available here). The statistics include 62 airports (and the vast majority of the UK’s movements and passenger travel) but clearly do not include many of the very small airports since there are 124 airports with an entry in the UK AIP, and many more unlicensed ones outside of that.

Total movements as reported by the CAA movements in the UK are shown below from January 2019 to August 2021 for all reporting airports and the 30 smallest ones. Both graphs are scaled so that 100% is the traffic in August 2019 for that sample (August 2019 was the busiest month in recent years).

The graph shows that the smaller airports took a faster dive in late 2019/2020 but have recovered more quickly in 2021. The collapse of regional airline Flybe in March 2020 could have contributed to the faster drop, and the slower recovery could be due to the international travel rules mentioned above.

The effects of the national lockdowns are clear, from March to June 2020 and November to December 2020. The third lockdown in England from January to March 2021 is also significant.

The trends above are also mirrored in the split between international and domestic traffic with domestic traffic recovering faster than international traffic this year. As of August, domestic traffic was at 60% of its August 2019 level, significantly higher than international traffic which was at 46% of August 2019. This probably relates to the testing requirements linked to travelling abroad during the summer and ongoing effects on consumer confidence.

Drilling down further, we can look at trends in the more specific types of traffic at the smallest airports in the graph below. Here there are big differences in the impacts of the lockdowns depending on the traffic type. Reported aeroclub activity was depressed during the lockdowns but has re-bounded strongly in recent months. Other traffic such as air taxi has been much more constant. Some types of traffic are almost back at their 2019 levels.

Smaller airports will no doubt be heartened by two budget announcements: firstly, a six-month extension to the Airport and Ground Operations Support Scheme (AGOSS) capped at £8 million per applicant and therefore of less benefit to larger airports; secondly the change in Air Passenger Duty (APD) announced by the Chancellor in the November budget. APD will be halved on domestic flights with a new ‘ultra-long-haul’ levy introduced on flights over 5,500 miles. However, this change will not take effect until 2023 so does not affect any of the data here.

I personally hope that domestic travel can continue to bounce back strongly. Some commentators were critical of the Chancellor’s apparent support for (domestic) air travel. But realistically, aside from supporting the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, this is an area of aviation that could be partially powered by environmentally friendly means in the near-term. To illustrate, one electrically-powered aircraft operator, Lilium, is focussing on flight distances up to 300km (186 miles) – further than Manchester to Glasgow or London to Exeter. The HyFLYER II project is planning on a 350-mile demonstration flight of a hydrogen-powered aircraft in 2023.

Establishing a network of domestic airports with electrical charging or hydrogen fuelling facilities is quite feasible. The range and size of aircraft would need to grow over time, but this would be a great focus for government-sponsored research. A green airport network would be an aviation-first and would complement the development of shorter-range drone operations. As a small country, developments in novel-powered regional air travel are feasible with sufficient R&D and would benefit the UK directly. They should surely be considered as a priority in aviation policy.

We’ll be picking up the environmental theme again in an upcoming blog on the implications for aviation of COP26.

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