Flying and taxes

A few months ago, the pro-aviation campaign group, Flying Matters, released results from their poll of voters in marginal seats, showing strong opposition to the then-forthcoming increase in Airline Passenger Duty.

An industry poll showing that people don’t like taxes imposed on their industry isn’t particularly interesting. It’s not unusual either: aviation is an area where almost all the polling seems to be pretty unconvincing, with questionnaires structured to lead respondents to answer a particular way. In fact, I’m yet to see only one interesting and credible finding in the various reported polls.

First, Flying Matters.  Since their most recent tweet is a link to an article about Tory candidates being ‘stalked by eco bullies’ – who are viciously sending emails that ask the candidates their position on climate change – I have a feeling that the group isn’t wholly enthusiastic about cutting emissions. And since the full data of the poll haven’t been published, I’m inclined to be cautious about their claim that 70% think the rises are unfair.

Much the same goes for an EasyJet poll in October, which found that 80% supposedly support a rethink of Airline Passenger Duty. Again, no data released, and I would take the finding with a fair pinch of salt.

It cuts the other way as well. Take a poll for Channel 4, back in June 2005, which showed 62% supported an increase in aviation tax to reduce climate change. A number that high supporting a tax rise is a pretty dramatic finding. But after having a look at the data released by those good people at C4, I’m less convinced.

Respondents were asked who should take responsibility for tackling climate change, then how much the cost of plane tickets would need to be increased by to deter people from flying, then a similar question about car sizes, then about their personal low-carbon actions, and only then about what they would support from a prompted list of possible measures to reduce climate change. With this structure, the subject of aviation taxes had been introduced beore respondents got to the list of measures, while most other options in the list were new. I don’t know for sure that this increased the proportion picking aviation tax, but I would be surprised if it had no effect.

That brings us to the one interesting result that’s worth paying attention to. It comes from a poll MORI conducted in June ‘06 for the Airfields Environment Trust. I don’t know anything about this group, but from their website they seem to be fairly concerned about global warming. So let’s look out for any sign of the poll framing its questions to encourage answers that are more pro-environmental.

Very helpfully, the pollsters split the audience into 4 groups, with some hearing contextualising introductions to different issues, and others not hearing the introductions. From this, we can both eliminate the bias that we’d get from an introductory argument for why increases in Air Passenger Duty might be a good idea, and also see what impact we would get from conveying this explanation.

And here’s the interesting bit. Respondents were read the following statement:

Suppose taxes on flying were raised so as to add about £20 to the cost of a return flight to Paris and around £200 to a return flight to Australia


and then asked how far they would support the tax rise if all the money raised went towards various different schemes. Among the group who hadn’t heard any contextualising statement, the results were:

I think this is pretty surprising for three reasons:

  1. It’s become accepted wisdom that the only way to win support for increases in environmental taxes is to show that they’re directly replacing other taxes. This says nothing of the sort.
  2. Schools and hospitals are supposed to be among people’s top concerns, but they come second to the environment.
  3. “Improving the environment” is an extremely vague pledge, but it still scores well.

One question in a poll conducted three and a half years ago isn’t conclusive. But among the mass of media-ready aviation polls, it does credibly suggest that people aren’t necessarily opposed to the tax system being used to encourage low-carbon behaviour change.


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