Is Amsterdam Schiphol’s flight reduction really the best way to combat climate change?

Jun 30, 2022

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This week the Dutch government announced plans to cap flights at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (AMS). The nation’s busiest airport aims to severely reduce its flights from 500,000 to 440,00 annually from 2023 in order to combat air pollution.

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In case you’ve not done the maths, that equates to 60,000 flights. Right now, when not besieged by delays, the airport is delivering roughy 1,250 flights a day. Overall the reduction would see flights for the European hub reduced by around 11%, it’s a considerable dent in the figures of Europe’s third-largest airport.

BA Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner touching down in Schiphol (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty)

The plan to help reduce carbon emissions, noise pollution and other eco-based challenges is without a shadow of a doubt, a noble one. But it could also be considered a little naive within the wider context of climate change and the battle against air emissions.

It’s undeniable that more needs to be done in the sector (the aviation industry currently accounts for 2.1% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions) but are there more productive and less disruptive options to achieve these goals?

Related: Is Amsterdam Schiphol Airport Europe’s best airport for a layover?

Here are a few for starters…

Invest more in alternative fuels

According to industry figures, global flights produced 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019 — a lot, basically. The aviation industry as a whole produces 12% of emissions from all transport sources, and more must be done to find other options to keep these gas-guzzling airliners in the sky.

The answer may be closer than you think. This May, it was revealed that the first ever transatlantic flight powered entirely by recycled cooking oil and other waste could launch as early as 2023, making it the world’s first-ever net-zero emissions flight between Europe and the U.S.

There’s no limit to what aerospace manufacturers can achieve with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The key issue lies in being able to ensure the facilities are there, to upgrade an entire industry to produce enough SAF to deal with the sheer demands of thirsty planes the world over. Sure, it doesn’t completely wipe out carbon emissions, but it does change the playing field somewhat.

Related: Spanish airline wants to bring the airship era back

Aptly enough, a Dutch consortium is aiming to start the world’s first sustainably fuelled commercial flight by 2028. If the country’s officials invest more money and time into pursuing alternate fuels, rather than simply curtailing flights, Amsterdam could be at the forefront of the next generation of air travel as we know it. We might not need to turn to airships just yet.

Charge higher fees to airlines that don’t meet eco-goals

You don’t need to be Greta Thunberg to know that grounding 60,000 flights per year would give Mother Nature a breather. But is there a smarter way to go here, perhaps by putting the onus on airlines to meet individual green goals?

Financial penalties would spawn a trickle-down effect, hitting airlines first, and then, as tick follows tock: passengers. Obviously, the latter isn’t ideal, but little by little it could certainly push the aviation industry to work harder to bring about change. It could also change people’s travel habits. Why fly to Paris or Brussels if there are better deals to be had on the Eurostar? Lower the demand, and increase the chance of hitting eco goals.

KLM’s Boeing 747 in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Of course, hitting airlines and fliers in the pocket may lead the industry back to the old days when air travel was for the elite, out-pricing regular travellers and low-cost airlines too. But if it’s going to save the world, maybe it’s a risk worth taking.

Banish ghost flights with landing slot amnesties

Ghost flights – otherwise known as when airlines send empty planes into the sky to keep hold of coveted landing slots at airports – are a scourge on modern aviation. They pollute the skies for no other reason than commercial gain fuelled by increased competition. This winter, as we’ve previously reported, there could be an estimated 100,000 ghost flights flying over Europe alone.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

One strategy recently mooted to save U.K airports from further travel chaos this summer was a proposed runway slot “amnesty” for airlines. The logic being that this would reduce last-minute cancellations and allow the likes of British Airways and EasyJet to cancel flights further in advance if they’re struggling minus the fear of losing their highly coveted slots for good. The vacated slots would then be temporarily given to other airlines able to fulfil the demand.

Related: What are ‘ghost flights’ and why are they causing so much uproar right now?

There are obviously incredibly complicated logistics at play to make this a viable solution but it’s reasonable to think that a similar proposition could also see an end to ghost flights, as well as last-minute cancellations. Who knows, if Schiphol airport could overcome the logistical challenges, this could put it well on its way to meeting certain eco-goals without resorting to a flight purge.

This doesn’t have to stop in Amsterdam, either. Imagine a country-by-country global slots amnesty implemented along the lines of the Paris Agreement, helping to banish skeleton crews in the sky once and for all. The Amsterdam Agreement has a nice ring to it, no?

Axe flights based on destination

For many, particularly those travelling further afield for family or business matters, taking a plane is the only option available. But not for all destinations. In fact, some are just as easy to reach via car or train as they are by plane. Perhaps another approach could be for Dutch officials to get around a table with the airlines and look at cutting flights based on destination.

The Duty Free Delicatessen at Schiphol (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

Much like France’s recent short-haul flight ban, which streamlined services which were under 2hr flight time, there is a valid precedent here already. Dutch airport bosses could easily follow suit by reducing domestic and extremely short-haul routes.

Related: Could there soon be a high-speed train from London to Berlin?

There’s certainly never been a better time for it. Right now, Europe is packed with increasingly ambitious cross-continental rail plans, including the news that SNCF and Deutsche Bahn are teaming up for a new high speed link between Paris and Berlin. More like this and passengers may start saving their points for long-haul trips.

All flights are cancelled for one day per year

OK, this one might be extreme and a bit pie-in-the-sky, but hear us out. It would, after all, only be for a single day.

Rather than cut umpteen flights causing chaos for millions of tourists and business travellers across 365 days, how about staging an entire ban on commercial flights for one day?

Admittedly, if we’re just talking Amsterdam Schiphol the figure would only be around 1,300 flights — down a great deal on the 60,000 they intend to cancel — but it’s a start and if other airports were to join forces and do the same it’s a number that could be brought up. It could be a national event, with other Dutch airports following suit, or how about a global event?

Airport bosses could even hold it on World Environment Day (5 June), the United Nations-led event for encouraging environmental action. If you want to raise an issue why not do it on the biggest stage of all?

Bottom line

In fairness to those behind the plans to cut 60,000 flights annually, attempting to bring in sustainable growth towards more environmentally friendly travel can feel like slow going. For context, last month it was revealed that U.K. airlines have missed all but one climate target since the turn of the millennium.

We’ve seen great technological advances, but like anything else in this sector, the demand needs to be there first to spur on a movement. Not for nothing has Airbus set a date of 2035 before it debuts the first zero-emission airliner running on hydrogen — tech takes time.

If Dutch officials wanted to start a conversation on climate change then they’ve succeeded. However, as we’ve highlighted, this isn’t the end of the conversation. We might not have nailed them all but there are other — arguably more productive in the long term —ways to go about things than a desk-bound civil servant clicking their fingers to make 60,000 flight to disappear at once.

Featured photo by Nisangha via Getty Images.

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