Heathrow airport had 480,339 aircraft movements in 2018, moving over 80 million passengers to international destinations, and 1,715,440 tonnes of cargo.

A typical Boeing 747 aircraft uses approximately one gallon of fuel for every second of flight time, around five gallons per mile, or roughly 36,000 gallons of fuel for a ten-hour flight; not exactly planet-friendly. With an average fuel consumption (per annum) of 2,401,695 gallons to a mile, you’d think that Heathrow airport as an entity may be a little more self-aware when it comes to emissions.

Improve air quality

It seems that whenever we have to face a whole new financial charge for motoring, the well-worn “improve air quality and cut congestion” phrase is trotted out, as a ‘one size, fits all’ solution; whoever originally coined that phrase must be thanking their chosen deity on a daily basis for the gift that it was.

A fuel tax rise? To cut congestion and improve air quality. Ultra-low emission zone charges? We need to improve air quality and cut congestion. You want to drop a passenger at Heathrow to catch a flight? That’s a £15 charge to help improve the air quality and cut congestion.

Despite not being owned by the local authority or government, the plan to charge cars arriving at Heathrow on the ULEZ basis that’s been introduced in London will of course find favour with them – “the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone at an airport” has a certain environmentally friendly ring to it, and the fact that the M4, M25 and A30 major road networks are quite literally on the doorstep doesn’t make a difference; it’s the pollution and congestion in the drop-off zone that’s responsible for the southern air pollution.


To be clear, and fair, not every vehicle will be targeted, at least not until the third runway opens (when there will be a flat access charge to all passenger vehicles, taxis and mini-cabs) – just those vehicles that wouldn’t comply with the current limits for the London ultra-low emission zone. As to why Heathrow Airport Holdings feels that it’s truly necessary, the clue may lay in the fact that they haven’t yet submitted the final bid for the planning permission for expansion, with public consultation beginning on 18th June.

John Holland-Kaye, chief executive for Heathrow Airport states: “Heathrow expansion is not a choice between the economy and the environment, we must deliver on both. Today’s announcement shows that we will take the tough decisions to ensure that the airport grows responsibly”.

And with ‘improving air quality and reducing congestion’ being such a popular topic, a cynic (me, for instance) would wonder whether a few keywords and environmental catchphrases bandied about with the bid would help or hinder that bid?

Ground support and infrastructure

Of course, the next thought turns to ground support vehicles and aircraft ground handling; surely Heathrow airport will be upgrading every single vehicle in their fleet to comply with the latest emission standards?
With approximately 7,500 airside vehicles in use at Heathrow, which accounts for around 10% of the total NOx emissions from the airport, just ten percent of those vehicles are electric or emission-free at point of use. The largest NOx producer at ground level for Heathrow is the aircraft themselves – accounting for around 70% of the NOx produced at the site.

Creating a clean air zone is all very admirable, and while Heathrow is working hard to reduce their emissions overall, the fact is that charging older vehicles to enter their site, even just to drop passengers off, seems to relate more to profiteering than doing good – just the same as ULEZ and congestion charging, those motorists that don’t have a pick of vehicles, or can’t afford to upgrade to the cleanest, emission-free standards still need to use the service, and will be forced to pay no matter what.

It gets back to the old argument of why not incentivise rather than penalise? If you turn up in a non-ULEZ compliant vehicle, you must pay the standard fees, however, if you arrive in a cleaner vehicle that would comply with the ULEZ, you get reduced parking, or if just stopping for short time, perhaps even free parking.

The alternative, of course, is to use another airport (assuming they fly to the same destination), but that leads to further emissions due to miles driven, and it would only be transferring the problem to another site, a classic case of NIMBYism from Heathrow Airport Holdings, and it’s worth pointing out that the parent company also owns Glasgow Airport Limited and Southampton International Airport Limited – could this radical new plan be rolled out to other airports?

Do you think that Heathrow are doing this for the right reasons? Or is it a simple case of profiteering? Let us know in the comments.

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