Climate change: ‘We need greener fuels, not jet bans, in France’

France has dozens of small airports which rely on private business flights or accommodate emergency services

A private jet at Figari airport
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Banning short-haul or private flights is not the way to make the aviation industry greener, the head of the association overseeing French airports has told The Connexion.

Nicolas Paulissen, executive director of the Union des Aéroports Français (UAF), says private flights should not be banned, even for leisure, and investment in technology to ‘greenify’ the sector is a much better option. This includes sustainable fuels and electric and hydrogen planes.

“The people who take these flights have the financial means to pay for sustainable aviation fuels, so what we need to do is work on the decarbonisation of these types of flights, rather than simply ban them,” he said.

A law passed in August 2021 banned internal French flights when a direct train or bus service lasting less than two-and-a-half hours is available.

However, the law, passed by both the National Assembly and Senate, is effectively on hold after French airports, united under the UAF, filed a complaint to the European Commission.

Mr Paulissen said they disagreed with the legal foundation used to enforce it.

The law is based on an EU regulation which states: “When serious environmental problems exist, the Member State responsible may limit or refuse the exercise of traffic rights, in particular when other modes of transport provide appropriate levels of service.

“The measure shall be non-discriminatory, shall not distort competition between air carriers, shall not be more restrictive than necessary to relieve the problems, and shall have a limited period of validity, not exceeding three years, after which it shall be reviewed.”

Mr Paulissen argues the EU regulation pertains to serious pollution incidents and does not make sense in terms of global warming, as imposing it for a period of just three years would be “useless”.

“The French law twisted the understanding of this regulation,” he said. “We are still waiting for a response from the EU.”

He argues that the law is too short-sighted, considering aviation is an international business. “It is far more worthwhile for us to make the sector greener, rather than cancelling domestic or short-haul flights. Long-distance flights represent 80% of CO2 emissions in the aviation industry. So we are attacking journeys that are emitting comparatively less CO2 but also the journeys that we could make greener more quickly. This tactic does not make much sense.”

Football controversy

His comments follow debates in France after the PSG football team was criticised for flying to Nantes, which is less than two hours from Paris by train.

Read more: ‘PSG football club’s arguments for flying Paris-Nantes do not hold’

Green senators proposed a bill in September that would extend the ban on flights where the train takes less than two-and-a-half hours to private jets. The same month, La France Insoumise MPs proposed a bill banning private jets completely.

Mr Paulissen says this is going in the wrong direction.

“First of all, what is a private flight? The image is of a billionaire who takes a flight over a very short distance for a holiday, but the reality is that most private flights are used for professional reasons. They allow companies, with all the staff they employ, to set up in areas that, without the flights and airports, would not exist.”

He said the industry must instead work on developing greener solutions. “If shortly we are going to have hydrogen planes or electric aircraft, we need to start thinking about this now. So it is a question of investment.

“Because of Covid, we have already had to spend a lot in terms of recovery, as we did not have any passengers for a period of time. And now we need to work on the energy transition.”

He is expecting more electric planes to come on the market between 2025 and 2030, but said they are not the only solution.

“We are working on all options. You cannot say that the industry of the future will just be electric planes or hydrogen planes. We are doing everything at the same time,” he said.

“Other options include sustainable aviation fuels – what we call technologies d’ultra-frugalité – that allow planes to consume a lot less fuel than before.”

Covid recovery

Mr Paulissen said Covid was a shock for all airports in France.

“They lost a lot of income because 80% of an airport’s income comes from passengers.

“This was especially true for airports relying on commercial flights as those catering principally to business flights were less affected.”

He said airports did not receive specific financial aid during the pandemic, which made things difficult, but they did benefit from other forms of government assistance. The long-term furlough scheme was particularly helpful.

“It explains why airports in France have done better at handling the return of passengers than, for example, British airports like Heathrow,” he said.

Heathrow has capped passenger numbers at 100,000 per day and asked airlines to adapt their schedules accordingly. The measure is due to last until at least the end of October and has seen airlines such as British Airways forced to cancel thousands of flights.

“We, of course, have had some difficulties here, but less so than other European countries such as the UK or Netherlands,” Mr Paulissen said. “We need staff with a particular skill set and once they leave it is hard to get them back, so it was important we were able to retain many of them. We estimate we are down around 10% of staff.”

France’s network of airports

France has around 500 airports, although many are very small with potential only for fire rescue, for example, rather than commercial flights.

There are around 170 larger ones (including those located in the overseas territories) – roughly equivalent to one for every 400,000 people, but Mr Paulissen insists this is not overkill.

Read more: MAP: See where France’s 148 airports are

“We often get people remarking that there are a lot but they think they are all for commercial flights, which is not true.

“We have around 54 airports with European certification, so these are the main ones with commercial flights. This number can fluctuate because some routes are added or taken away, depending on circumstances,” Mr Paulissen said.

The other airports accommodate business aviation, repair and maintenance workshops, bases for helicopters such as those used by France’s electricity transmission system operator RTE, and bases for emergency rescue aircraft.

“They are not all there to host Ryanair flights.”