Anyone who has been stranded on their commute to work will recognise the value of improving the UK’s creaking transport infrastructure – more jobs, economic growth and greater prosperity are all widely offered as benefits of investment, not to mention a train that actually gets you into the office at a decent hour. But you needn’t be a Luddite to also ask questions of how and where this investment is channelled, whether negative externalities like increased pollution and emissions are sufficiently addressed, and whether the benefits of this investment are genuinely going to be felt by all.

Today saw the Airports Commission recommend the building of a third runway at Heathrow. There are obvious and reasonable objections from environmental groups and those whose homes are in line to be bulldozed by the development. But there is another problem – we are effectively expanding an already broken transport system.

A little discussed issue with transport in Britain is the ridiculous way in which it is subsidised by government. In our recent report Taken for a Ride we found the richest 10% of households received nearly double the transport subsidy of the poorest 10%.  This bizarre inequality is also seen in much of the regional data, with Londoners enjoying over three and half times as much rail subsidy as households in Wales.

Air transport sadly fares little better. With the weather as it is, it may be a few more ‘staycations’ are now on the cards, but per person, Brits cover more air miles than anyone else each year , Heathrow handles more international flights than any other airport in the world  and two out of every three flights to and from British airports are taken by UK citizens .  Clearly we are a nation of frequent flyers.

Except that’s not quite true. Department for Transport survey data indicates that over half of us don’t fly at all each year  – and only 15% of UK residents took three or more flights last year. However that 15% – the truly frequent flyers – took over 70% of all flights.  Furthermore, the data shows that membership of this group is dominated by the wealthiest sections of society.

One reason air passenger growth has been so strong is the exceptionally high level of tax subsidy the aviation sector enjoys. It is illegal by international treaty to tax aviation fuel and airline tickets, planes, parts, repairs and fuel are all zero-rated for VAT. In 2012, the (quantifiable) effective subsidy to the aviation sector via these exemptions was around £11.4 billion.

The reality therefore is that the richest are benefitting from huge government subsidies, but the rest of us are not, an obvious driver of inequality. This is why we’ve lent our support to calls for the abolishment of Air Passenger Duty and its replacement with a fairer tax on flying – a Frequent Flyer Levy. For those interested details can be found here, I’d urge you to sign up and support too.

It is clear that the way we subsidise transport in this country is incredibly misguided. We are spending huge amounts of money (around the same amount as we spend on NHS Accident and Emergency services) to help the well paid into their workplaces every day, but we are not providing the same opportunities for the poorest. Investment in transport infrastructure is vital, but it must come alongside a change in the way we subsidise its use.

John Hood, Media and Communications Manager