"Flight Shame" Is Actually Changing the Way People Travel

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©. Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

Domestic flights in Sweden are declining and airport expansion plans are being reconsidered.

Flight Shame, or flygskam, is a regular topic now on TreeHugger, where both Katherine Martinko and I struggle with the fact that if you live in the upper middle part of North America, it is very hard to get anywhere without flying. Katherine recently asked Is shaming people for flying effective? and apparently in Europe, where people have decent alternatives to flying, the answer is yes. Janina Conboye and Leslie Hook of the paywalled Financial Times have a look at how the issue is actually more than just talk and is affecting the industry.

For airlines, the sudden take-off of this movement presents a potentially dangerous challenge. Airline passenger growth shows signs of weakening in countries where flygskam is catching on. There was a 3 per cent fall last year in the number of passengers for domestic flights going through 10 of Sweden’s state-owned airports, compared with the year before. The movement has not only taken aim at summer holiday flights, but also at airport expansion plans including Heathrow in London.
Even the airlines themselves are acknowledging the problem.
“This is an existential question for us,” says Rickard Gustafson, chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), which is based near Stockholm. “If we don’t clearly articulate a path to a sustainable aviation industry, it will be a problem.”

The authors also make it very clear that the effects of flying go beyond the basic CO2 emissions, which amount to about 2 percent of global emissions. Planes also put out nitrogen oxide and water vapor at high altitudes, so that "the climate impact of aeroplanes is about twice as much as their CO2 emissions alone would suggest — closer to 5 per cent of human-caused warming."

Some airlines are experimenting with biofuels, others with electric and hybrid aircraft. The authors note that the only technology currently in the air is biofuel from AltAir, which "supplies United Airlines with biofuel made from agricultural waste." But they do not say what the agricultural waste is; as noted on TreeHugger previously, it is beef tallow, which has a huge footprint of its own. I wrote:

Given the impact that raising cattle has, from its use of land and water to the carbon emitted raising it, I suspect that a lot of people would look less favorably at United’s initiative if they knew they were flying on beef tallow. And I am sure a lot of flying vegetarians wouldn’t be too happy either.

Both airlines and activists say change is afoot, and that people are looking at alternatives. Lucy Gilliam, an aviation and shipping expert at Transport and Environment, tells the FT authors:

We are seeing that all around, people are going, oh crikey, aviation is actually part of my footprint. And when they look at things that they have direct control of, aviation comes up in the top three things that you can actually do to reduce your impact.
Air canada

Minneapolis/St Paul Airport/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In North America, it is much harder reduce your impact because there are so few alternatives. Katherine suggests a 'reducetarian' approach – fly less often, and fly more carefully. She notes that "it may sound like a watered-down reaction at a time when immediate and decisive action is crucial, but it's more realistic. If more people flew less, we'd be further ahead than if a handful of people swore off flying altogether."

It certainly is more realistic. Another option that the FT authors suggest is increasing prices and taxing fuel, which I have noted is now not taxed thanks to a 1944 international treaty. The entire industry is a giant bottomless pit of subsidies; I wrote earlier:

C-series jet

Bombardier C-Series Jet/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The first time I got on a Bombardier C-series jet (now an Airbus A-220), I joked that Canadian taxpayers should fly free, given the level of support and subsidy the plane had received. But it is the same everywhere in the world – the airports, the highways and trains to the airports, the planes and the fuel, all hugely subsidized or exempted from taxes that everybody else pays, which is in essence a subsidy.

Charge the customer the full cost of flying and people would do it a lot less.