Why France’s ban on flights under 2 hours won’t have the impact you think

Apr 6, 2022

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France’s controversial ban on short-haul flights comes into effect this month and many questions still surround the decision. The most important being, just how big an impact will this have?

The ban, which prohibits flights where a train or bus alternative of two and a half hours or less exists, was designed to reduce the carbon emissions from the country’s aviation industry.

As TPG reported at the time of the vote, the legislation earned criticism from both the travel industry and environmentalists. The latter is saying that they don’t do enough to make a dent in the climate crisis, while airline advocates said it will add further pain to an industry still recovering from the pandemic fallout.

Related: The basics of offsetting the carbon emissions from your flights

In 2020 the French government signed a €7 billion bailout of the country’s flagship carrier, Air France, following the massive financial losses traced back to the coronavirus. One condition attached to the financial prop-up was that the airline had to transform into a more environmentally-conscious operation.

We’re going to break down how the new restrictions will affect travel in and around France, how many routes will actually be impacted, and whether this is something we can expect other countries to replicate.

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Paris, France – July 24, 2015: Orly airport in Paris France at sunrise. (photo: OnickzArtworks/Getty Images)

 

Which routes will this actually affect?

This is almost certainly the question on most people’s minds when discussing the France flight ban. The truth is that the new legislation won’t really impact that many routes at all. In fact, it will affect a total of just five domestic routes (there were reportedly 108 domestic routes flown within France before COVID-19). The routes that will be cut are:

  • Paris (ORY) to Bordeaux (BOD)
  • Paris (ORY) to Lyon (LYS)
  • Paris (ORY) to Nantes (NTE)
  • Paris (ORY) to Rennes (RNS)
  • Lyon (LYS) to Marseille (MRS)

However, note that the first three of these routes have already been suspended during the pandemic, and Paris (ORY) to Rennes (RNS) has not operated for many years. The Lyon (LYS) to Marseille (MRS) route is being allowed to operate, where passengers will then connect onto other Air France services. So, in reality this will make virtually no difference.

The new legislation won’t impact any routes at all from France’s biggest airport, Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG). As you can see, it is a very small percentage of French domestic travel roughly 4.6%(albeit, the routes being cut are some of the busiest) that is being excised by the new law. That is why environmental groups criticised the legislation, pointing out that the ban only applies to local traffic and not flights that are linked to international flights.

Related: What are ‘ghost flights’ and why are they causing so much uproar right now?

Given that not that many short-haul routes are being cut, what kind of positive impact will this ban actually have? Well, it will still curtail carbon emissions due to the fact that domestic flights have significantly higher carbon emissions per passenger than long-haul travel due to take-off and landings being the high points of emissions. According to the Guardian, emissions produced per kilometre for each passenger on a domestic route are 70% higher than long haul flights — and it’s six times higher than if the same journey was made by train.

French officials initially asked Air France to curtail as many as 40% of their domestic routes, but clearly, they settled on a lower number. Considerations were likely given to maintain Air France’s competitiveness and so passengers did not bypass Paris as a hub for international flights.

But the past two years has put renewed focus on the climate crisis, which is why France’s Minister for the Economy, Bruno Le Maire, said last year,  “It is obvious that today a number of domestic routes are no longer justified. When you can travel by train in less than two and a half hours, there is no justification for taking a plane.”

Will other countries do the same?

France is currently the only country in Europe to ban domestic flights of less than two hours within its borders, a first step in its plan to eventually go carbon neutral. Several other nations, however, are also considering actions to limit short-haul flights. An important reason why these ideas are gaining traction across the continent is that, unlike the U.S., Europe has a far-reaching and effective rail system already in place.

Austria had already beaten France to the punch with its own domestic flight ban, though for slightly longer flights. After bailing out Austrian Airlines in 2020 from massive COVID-related losses, Austrian officials forced the airline to cut domestic flights under three hours where a train was a viable alternative. According to some estimates, as many as 80% of Austria’s short-haul trips can be adequately replaced by train travel.

Germany has been debating a ban on short-haul flights for some time, only to run into opposition from labor unions and the aviation industry. Instead, officials have doubled taxes on all short-haul airline tickets, in an attempt to discourage passengers away from pricey airline tickets and toward more affordable train travel.

Sweden has also adopted the tactic of boosting taxes on aeroplane tickets following the rise of the social movement “flygskam” roughly translated as “flight shame.”  It could be working as air travel in Sweden declined 9% in 2021.

While it’s not clear how effective a strategy like that would be long term, there is evidence that banning short-haul flights has widespread support across the continent.  A 2020 survey found that 62% of Europeans back a ban across the EU on short-haul flights.

Related: How train travel can be good for the environment

Adding to the momentum is that, as we mentioned earlier, Europe’s rail network is a viable replacement for many domestic routes — including from the U.K. via Eurostar. Of course, while trains are available, it is also a significantly slower method of travel, and that also has to be taken into consideration by countries considering flight bans.

Then there is the financial impact on budget airlines like Ryanair, EasyJet and others to consider. Those carriers would be massively impacted if the short-haul flight ban movement gains further traction.

BOTTOM LINE

France’s new ban is far from a game-changer, but it still is a notable move by a major economic power to show it is serious about tackling the impact air travel has on the environment. The discussions in other countries could gain momentum as a result, but it may be some time before we see anything but modest adjustments in how European nations address carbon emissions. In the meantime, it would not be surprising to see train travel across the continent see a notable boost in the near future.

Featured image by Chesnot/Getty Images

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