Should There Be a Tax on Short, Cheap Flights?

©. Sean Gallup/ Getty Images

It makes sense in Europe. Too bad North Americans have so few alternatives.

We go on about Why cheap mass air travel must be stopped, because it it is crazy. In Europe, where there are wonderful fast trains, it's so much cheaper to fly. Now a former German transport minister, Alexander Dobrindt, is proposing that a floor price be set on air tickets.

Writing in Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky notes that airlines get a break that nobody else gets: their fuel isn't taxed, thanks to a 1944 international agreement. Tickets are taxed, but lightly and weirdly, depending on whether it is intra-EU or extra-EU (Britons, prepare to pay more after Brexit), which has nothing to do with its carbon footprint.

A tax scale that goes up with the distance traveled is plainly a mistake, too. Of course, the longer the flight, the higher the absolute amount of carbon emitted per passenger. But the idea of a smart environmental levy on airfares shouldn’t be to discourage long-distance travel, because it’s rather pointless. For people planning an intercontinental trip, or even one across Europe, there’s no reasonable alternative to flying.

All the flying people do in Europe is crazy, because people really do have alternatives. Bershidsky tells us that "there’s no justification for flying, say, from Brussels to London, from Barcelona to Madrid, or from Rome to Milan – it’s faster by train when airport waiting times are taken into consideration." But the price of flying is so low that people do it instead.

Former Minister Dobrindt wants a tax on all flights under 50 Euros, because they are the worst for carbon emitted per mile traveled, and they are the ones for which there could be alternatives.

According to an analysis performed in 2011 by Brighter Planet, a California-based organization that calculates emissions and looks for ways to reduce them, European and U.S. low-budget airlines are driven down the carbon efficiency scale by the relatively short distances they typically fly.

But what do you do in North America? The trains are just not there. I can take a train to New York City from Toronto where I live, and it will take me 12.5 hours. The same distance in Europe or China would take me under 3 hours. We really don't have much choice. Bershidsky concludes: "Something needs to be done about the short flights, and sooner or later governments will need to clamp down on them, boosting the competitiveness of more carbon-efficient modes of transportation."

Turbo Train in 1975

Robert Taylor on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It now takes longer to get from Toronto to Montreal by train than it did in 1968 when they introduced the United Aircraft/ Sikorsky Turbo Train. Imagine what it might be like today if trains had not been written off in North America.