We’re Thinking About Flying All Wrong

We need to find the specific points of leverage that will start to shift the system.

Passengers board a jet in 1952
Passengers boarding at London Airport in 1952 for the inaugural flight of the world's first regular jet service.

Monty Fresco / Getty Images

Like many eco-minded people, Treehugger writers also struggle with their flight-related footprint. Whether it’s Katherine exploring the effectiveness of "flight shaming," or Lloyd confessing his guilt about yet another work trip, the conversation often revolves around questions of personal morality:

"What should or shouldn’t I be doing to lessen my travel footprint?"

As both Lloyd's and Katherine’s pieces suggest, however, the ease of making the "right" choice depends very much on where you are in the world, and what you do for a living. Heck, as a Brit married to an American, I can attest that it even comes down to who you happen to love.

There’s no doubt that tackling aviation emissions is an urgent moral imperative, especially given the fact that much of the global population has never stepped foot on the plane. While developments like electric flight might eventually make some difference, the chances are good that flying will remain a high-carbon activity for many decades to come.

And that means demand reduction has to be on the table.

I worry, however, that we’re focusing our discussions with the hardest part of the problem first. Here’s what I mean: While it’s true that even a single international flight can add several tons of emissions to an individual’s carbon footprint, it’s also true that the vast majority of trips are taken by a tiny minority of people. (According to one study, a full 50% of aviation emissions can be attributed to just 1% of the population.) What that says to me is that we’re not short of low-hanging fruit:

  • As recent history has shown, we can replace a lot of unnecessary (and often unwanted) work trips and conference travel with telepresence instead;
  • We can encourage businesses and institutions to empower, or even require, overland travel where possible;
  • We can take steps to tax or otherwise disincentivize frequent flyer programs;
  • And the list goes on.

On a basic level, it’s easier (and fairer) to ask a frequent flyer to forego a few trips, or ask a company to save a little travel budget, than it is to shame someone for flying home to see their mum at Christmas. That’s not, however, the only reason to focus our efforts.

The fact is that frequent flyers, and especially business travelers, are also significantly more profitable than the rest of us. That’s because they shop around less, they are more likely to book at the last minute, and they are also more willing to pay for upgrades. Add that to the fact that executives may pay top dollar for business class, then we can start to see how tackling this low-hanging fruit could have significant secondary effects.

The pandemic has opened up a huge opportunity to address this question head-on. In my day job, travel emissions account for the single biggest portion of my employer’s impact – and yet we’ve now gone almost a year with nobody getting on a plane. Not only have we realized huge financial savings, but we’ve also learned that many of those trips were largely unnecessary in the first place. We are now actively exploring ways we can make at least some of these savings permanent. Whether it’s academic efforts like No Fly Climate Sci, or businesses like consulting giant PwC cutting back on travel, there are promising signs that institutions and industries are finally giving this question the attention that it deserves.  

Business travelers make up for a minority of passengers on most flights, but they are critically important to how profitable those flights are. In fact, according to an article in New York Magazine's Intelligencer, the post-COVID drop off in business travelers may have a lasting impact on how tickets for leisure travel are priced. That's important because we are looking to create non-linear change.  As such, we need to find the specific points of leverage that will start to shift the system. Try as I might, I have a hard time imagining a world where everyone, voluntarily, chooses not to fly – especially in places like North America where there is a dearth of viable alternatives. But if we can chip away at some of the key pillars of airline profitability, we can create space for solutions to emerge.

It’s notable, after all, that flygskam (flight shame) has primarily taken off in Sweden, Germany, and other jurisdictions where train travel is cheap, accessible, and commonplace. It’s also notable that as people started to fly less, the system started quickly to respond. Rail networks even began investing in new sleeper trains for the first time in years, which should only serve to fuel the trend.

As a relatively privileged Englishman, living in North America, and with most of my extended family in Finland, I’m the first to admit that I’m entirely biased on this subject. While I respect and admire those who don’t fly, I’m one of the millions and millions of people for whom complete abstinence would be a painfully difficult choice.

That doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. While I’m not yet ready to permanently ground myself, I am more than ready to find common cause with anyone who wants to reduce emissions. For some, that will mean never flying again. For others, it will mean skipping a few flights, or even just switching from business to economy. Another way that many of us can take action is engaging with our employers, or with industry groups, to make alternatives to flying more acceptable. And for all of us, it should mean voting and agitating for legislative change that makes truly low carbon transportation a central priority for our times.

Ultimately, the only carbon footprint that matters is our collective one. That means that all of us, whether we fly or not, have an opportunity to contribute to a world where flying less is a much easier and more pleasant stance to take.

View Article Sources
  1. Gössling, Stefan, and Andreas Humpe. "The Global Scale, Distribution and Growth of Aviation: Implications for Climate Change." Global Environmental Change, vol. 65, 2020, p.102194, doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102194