Majority of World's Flights Taken by a Small Minority of Elite Travelers

Is it time to introduce a frequent flier levy on those responsible for the most emissions?

Dining In Flight
In-flight dining, 1950s. Frederic Lewis / Getty Images

Back when Britain was fighting over the need for a third runway at Heathrow, Leo Murray, the Director of Innovation at the climate think tank Possible, began digging into the statistics to see where all the projected growth in demand was coming from. While certain politicians and the tabloid press loved to decry the snobbery of "elite" environmentalists telling "ordinary" citizens that they should no longer go on vacation, what Murray found was a somewhat different reality:

“The politically sacrosanct annual family holiday was not at fault when it came to rapidly rising aviation emissions. Rather, most air travel was down to a small, relatively well-off demographic taking ever more frequent leisure flights. So targeting climate policy at the elite minority responsible for most of the environmental damage from flights could help tackle the climate problem from flying without taking away access to the most important and valued services which air travel provides to society.”

This quote comes from the foreword to a new report called Elite Status: Global Inequalities in Flying. Published by Possible, and authored by Lisa Hopkinson and Dr. Sally Cairns, the report takes a deeper dive into aviation patterns across 30 of the major markets around the world. What they found is a strikingly similar pattern, regardless of country:

  • In the United States, 66% of flights are attributable to just 12% of the population. 
  • In France, a full 50% of flights are taken by an even smaller 2% of people.
  • And in the UK, a mere 15% of the population is responsible for 70% of all flights taken.

Whether it was China, Canada, the Netherlands, or India, the report’s authors found that everywhere they looked, a small number of elites were responsible for a disproportionate share of aviation emissions. The inequalities don’t end there, however. When you look at the global scale, there are also massive country-by-country disparities about which countries, and which economies, are driving demand:

  • Just 10 countries account for a majority (60%) of total aviation emissions.
  • And only 30 countries account for a whopping 86% of total emissions.
  • Meanwhile, over half (56%) of total tourism expenditure is due to just 10 countries, seven of which are also in the top ten earners from tourism.

The Case for Frequent Flier Levies

Taken together, the statistics above provide a powerful case for the need to tackle aviation demand as an issue of basic equity. And the authors argue that the simplest – and most politically palatable– way to do so would be to enact a frequent flyer levy in countries that currently make up the majority of aviation demand:

“Looked at on a global scale, any measure to fairly distribute air travel would need to limit flying to an extremely occasional measure – since 2018 levels of flying already equated to less than 1 one-way flight per person per year. As a pathway to achieving this, measures could be implemented by countries with high levels of flying to bring down the number of trips by their most frequent flyers. If the UK’s unequal distribution of air trips is mirrored elsewhere, such measures would have the advantage of affecting a relatively small proportion of the population and, if achieved via a fiscal mechanism, could generate funds for more socially equal activities (such as boosting domestic tourism).”

As the quote above shows, when looked at on a global scale even one flight per-person-per-year is unlikely to be sustainable from a strict, personal carbon budget perspective. It’s important, however, to tackle the low-hanging fruit first. If measures like a frequent flyer levy could be used to drive down demand among wealthy, elite frequent flyers – the shift in demand patterns would almost certainly change the economics of travel, helping alternatives such as domestic travel and/or better sleeper trains and other overland travel options to emerge.

Similarly, while business travel makes up a relatively small proportion of overall flying, it is disproportionately profitable for airlines – meaning any reduction in business and institutional travel demand would likely have knock-on impacts that change travel patterns for all of us.

As ICCT’s Dan Rutherford explained when we interviewed him recently, there are some promising technological developments that should be able to reduce emissions through both cleaner fuels and greater efficiency. Yet the idea of complete decarbonization is a long way off, and demand reduction is absolutely going to have to be a part of the equation.

Starting that demand reduction with those who create the most demand seems like a pretty sensible way to go about things.


View Article Sources
  1. Hopkinson, Lisa. "Elite Status: Global Inequalities in Flying." Possible., 2021

  2. "Proposal for a Frequesnt Flyer Levy." Fellow Travellers.