Government says tech will help reach aviation net zero as data shows Sunak flew London to Birmingham and back in a day

Junior minister says that private flights can sometimes ‘provide better value for money’

Credit: Nils/CC BY-SA 1.0

A minister has cited “new technology” in the aviation sector as crucial to achieving net zero emissions from the industry by 2050.

The comments, from Exchequer secretary to the Treasury Helen Whately, came alongside the release by HM Treasury of details of domestic flights taken by Rishi Sunak, which showed the chancellor occasionally opts to make the 100-mile journey from north London to south Birmingham via plane. 

In one case, Sunak made the return journey – from RAF Northolt to Birmingham Airport – later the same day.

The two journeys were among 13 domestic flights taken by the chancellor since the start of the coronavirus crisis. 

The day in question, 7 July, saw the chancellor tour a number of businesses in Wolverhampton. He was one of about 20 ministers around the country to take part in an exercise undertaken by the government to mark the anniversary of the publication of its Plan for Jobs – a policy paper outlining measures intended to help protect firms and their employees from the financial impacts of the coronavirus crisis. 

After his brief visit to the West Midlands, the chancellor flew back to the capital. The flight is about 85 miles, compared with a 100-mile journey by road – which would take about one hour 40 minutes.

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Alternatively, after an 11-mile drive from Northolt to Watford Junction, Sunak could have taken one of the approximately 100 trains that run to Birmingham each day, the quickest of which take about 70 minutes.

Whately, who provided details of the chancellor’s flights in answer to written parliamentary question from Labour MP Emma Hardy, said that private flights can sometimes prove more cost-effective than alternative means of transport and that that government remains committed to reducing air travel emissions to net zero  – in part through the use of technological innovation.

“As has been the case under successive administrations, non-scheduled air travel is necessary at times for undertaking government and royal household official visits,” she said. “This may be to the timing and flexibility needed, for security reasons, or due to the location being visited. It can also provide better value for money in the cases of larger delegations – which can include journalists.”

She added: “The Government’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan has set out our plans to reach net zero aviation emissions by 2050 through new technology and sustainable aviation fuels.”

Data provided by the junior minister revealed that, after flying from Leeds to Northolt on 12 March 2020 – which is in the northern suburbs of London – Sunak took no domestic flights during the first national lockdown that followed shortly thereafter.

In July, he flew between Birmingham and Northolt, and the following month from Northolt to Glasgow; the following day he made the journey to from Glasgow to RAF Leeming, very close to the chancellor’s constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire.

In March 2021, he made four flights: from Northolt to Teesside and back again on 3 and 4 March, and from Northolt to Humberside and back on the same day: 31 March.

In May, Sunak made another trip from Humberside to Northolt, while in late July he flew from Northolt to Edinburgh the, the following day, from Glasgow to Teesside.

PublicTechnology asked HM Treasury if it wished to provide any additional comment or information – beyond Whately’s parliamentary answer – on the reasons for the chancellor’s flights; the department indicated that it did not wish to do so.


Sam Trendall

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