Breaking the policy deadlock

25 april 2019

Due to the increasing demand for international travel, many airports have ambitions to expand. However, nowadays the expansion of airports is often called into question. To deal with the different interests of aviation, policymakers have turned to collaborative planning arrangements.

In the past decades, the dual objective of improving economic developments and reducing environmental effects at the same time, has shown to be unrealistic and has resulted in a conflicting debate. This situation is referred to as a policy deadlock, in which collaborative planning arrangements are ineffective to balance the different interests. For several months our graduate intern, Michiel van Goozen, investigated this so-called policy deadlock around the world, but specifically in regards to Dutch aviation.


In order to reframe the policy discourse to resolve deadlock, sustainability – both in economic terms as well as environmental terms – was used as a ‘boundary object’. A boundary object is an object that is used and understood differently by different persons, yet has a common identity that allows them to collaborate on a common task. The next step was to construct a policy discourse around sustainability in which the ambiguity of economic and environmental perspective was not dominant. This was done by means of an application of the Q-methodology.

Q-methodology is a methodology that aims to analyse people’s subjectivity in a statistical interpretable form. The analysis is done through a selection of 50 pre written statements, that people with several backgrounds (policymakers, airport managers, residents, etc.) fitted into a framework, to see where the ambiguities are and where the common tasks lie. Examples of these statements are: “In the coming 50 years the technical developments will reduce the nuisance of aviation.” And “Air transport will be replaced by other forms of transport (for example high-speed trains)”.

What is interesting to see in the results, is that all the perspectives on sustainable aviation engaged with balancing the economic, environmental, and social objectives of sustainability. The perspectives did not focus on optimising just one of these interpretations of sustainability. The perspectives also focused more on strategies to best deal with the diverging interests rather than the perspectives in the deadlock policy discourse.

Sustainability as the overarching objective

The interpretation of the results leads to several recommendations. Most importantly: collaborative planning arrangements should be organised on the basis of the perspectives on sustainable aviation. Sustainability should not be regarded as a pillar next to other objectives, but be seen as the overarching objective. Secondly, the airport needs to be connected with the region in new ways.

Thirdly, the institutional government should be reformed into something where assumptions about the capacity of the Dutch airspace, the veracity of the ‘mainport-concept’ and the potential of technological developments are regarded as uncertainties. Fourth, there should be focus on the development of knowledge on the potential of technological developments for the next fifty years. Fifth, a more united policy discourse with collaborative planning that spans boundaries of different airports in the Netherlands, should be initiated.

Finally, the analysis of policy alternatives should do more justice to the different future scenarios of sustainable aviation. This involves a broader scope in which alternatives for international travel, economic activity, and urban planning are also taken into account.

From our perspective, future research must be conducted with the best design principles for collaborative planning arrangements, based on the perspectives on sustainable aviation. It also could analyse how other boundary objects can be used for reframing of the policy discourse, or how reframing by means of boundary objects can be applied in other sectors.

If you want to know more about how we can break the policy deadlock when it comes to aviation and airport development or if you have any questions regarding the Q-methodology, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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