Does ‘Flight Shaming’ Threaten Air Travel?

Jul 4, 2019

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With countries declaring climate emergency status, and some climate-change activists encouraging the world to give up flying, aviation is facing the heat of a growing phenomenon known as ‘flight shaming’. It’s a concept that first emerged in Sweden (known as flygskam), which encourages the feeling of being embarrassed or ashamed to fly on commercial aircraft because of the environmental impact.

The chief executive of one of Scandinavia’s largest airlines has blamed the flight-shame movement for a fall in passenger numbers in Sweden, where concern about climate change has inspired people — especially young people — to give up flying and take the train instead. In Seoul, South Korea, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) Rickard Gustafson told TPG UK that he believes the flight-shaming movement is responsible for the slump in Swedish air traffic, which fell over 5% in the first quarter of 2019. By contrast, passenger numbers rose by 4.4% in Europe during the same period.

Swedavia AB, which operates to 10 Swedish airports, has seen year-on-year passenger numbers drop for seven consecutive months. In fact, last year when the flight-shaming movement started to gain traction, Sweden had its weakest overall growth in passenger numbers in over a decade.

While air transport accounts for just 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions, this figure is likely to grow as the worldwide population continues to fly more each year. For now, 2% might not seem substantial enough to warrant any real change to our necessary flying requirements, but it’s worth pointing out that just one return flight from London to Sydney emits about 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is already half of what the average person’s annual carbon footprint should be.

There should be no argument against the facts surrounding climate change that are scientifically proven, but there is a strong debate to be had in relation to how the world cannot simply ‘stop flying’. Air travel is an essential tool in our global, connected world. Today, 120,000 flights will take off, carrying 12 million passengers and $18 billion worth of trade.

Gustafson told me that all airlines must take measures to cut pollution and become more sustainable through the use of sustainable alternative jet fuel — at least until we are able to fly in a zero carbon manner.

In 2016, ICAO adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme — a scheme expected to mitigate 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 between 2021 and 2035 through offsetting. CORSIA will be key to achieving an air transport industry goal of capping net emissions at 2020 levels and to a 50% reduction in net CCO2 by 2050 compared with 2005. However, will such industry goals targeting years that are decades away from 2019 be enough to satisfy the flight-shaming movement? It appears not.

“Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,” Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA recently told some 150 airline CEOs at the annual general meeting in South Korea when discussing the new threat ‘flight shaming’ poses to aviation growth.

Over the past week, Dutch airline KLM has launched a new campaign to confront the environmental impact of air travel. The airline’s new “Fly Responsibly” campaign launched with a video that seemingly encourages viewers to fly less — “Do you always have to meet face-to-face? Could you take the train instead?”

Naturally, avid frequent-flyers — specifically those who fly for mileage runs — are also under fire. In the direction the movement is heading towards, it’s likely that there will soon be an expectation around the globe that all flights are to be carbon offset. “Especially for people travelling unnecessarily, like the miles and points lovers, which I think should be banned given their games are ruining our Earth”, one climate activist told me on the sidelines of the IATA conference last month.

The reality is, we’re still quite far from the day we can board an aircraft knowing our flight will not have any carbon impact on the planet. “One day a scientist will figure out how to replace the current jet engine, and I think those planes will become available to all of us in, say, 20 years’ time”, Gustafson said.

Featured photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

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