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Should we feel flight shame or not?


Eva Holmberg

Yrkeshögskolan Novia

Published : 27.09.2019

Over half of international tourists fly to their destinations. The Swedes, on the other hand, are going against the trend: they have recently started feeling ashamed of flying and have cut down on their flights. In fact, Swedish airports have registered reduced numbers of passengers. The Swedes even have a name for the concept: “flygskam”, flight shame. For now, many Swedes are taking trains or staying at home.

What is flight shame all about?

Flight shamers say flying is a luxury that we can afford to live without. During the early decades of commercial flying, in the 1950s to 1970s, it was mainly the upper classes of society that were flying. When mass tourism developed in the 1970s, flying became more common and possible for everyone. During the decades since, the number of flights and air travellers have increased tremendously. However, after the famous Brundtland Report in 1987, Al Gore’s Nobel Prize for “The Inconvenient Truth” and the recent Paris Agreement, concern for climate change and a more environmentally responsible way of thinking have become mainstream. People are now more aware of the consequences of their consumption. Eating meat, driving fossil fuel cars, refusing to recycle and taking multiple flights a year are behaviour patterns considered deplorable by many. Since flying is not a necessity for the lives of most people, it can easily be included among the banned behaviours. To fly short distances is considered to be particularly bad behaviour, as more environmentally friendly modes of transport, such as trains, could be taken. Enjoying holidays on other continents is not acceptable behaviour either, at least from a flight shamer’s point of view.

Too many of us choose flying because flying is so cheap, too cheap, in fact. The price of airline tickets does not reflect the true environmental costs of flying. Budget airlines have disrupted the market. It is time to make the polluter pay.

Meanwhile: air travel is growing

Globally, over four billion of us chose to travel by air last year. Every day, 12 million people fly somewhere. Annually, there are around 42 million flights taking off. Over third of global air passengers travel in the Asia Pacific region. The second busiest passenger region is Europe, followed closely by North America. China is a big growth market where air travel is breaking all records and where there seems to be an insatiable appetite for pilots. Furthermore, China is planning to build 200 more airports by 2035.

It is not only people that are flying: Goods fly, too. Global trade demands fast access and delivery. Almost 35 % of worldwide trade by value is transported by air.

Aviation employs and connects

Aviation supported jobs employ 65 million people around the world, according to the representative organisation of the world’s airlines, IATA (International Air Transport Association). There are over 1,300 airlines in the world. If aviation was a country, it would rank 20th in terms of GDP. The economic ramifications of aviation are huge, but they are not the only issues that matter. There are vital social responsibilities to consider as well.

Aviation provides connections, both for business and pleasure, for financial and family matters. During disasters, air transport is often the only way to reach far-flung destinations and get help there on time. Indeed, airlines provide vital links between destinations. They connect remote areas of the world to the global transport network. There are destinations which simply cannot realistically be reached without air travel, such as small island states and remote rural villages in mountainous regions. Airline connections are their lifelines.

Pointing the finger at the environmental footprint of aviation

Flight shame is pointing a finger at the enormous environmental footprint of aviation. Aviation causes around 2 % of CO2 emissions made by man. That sounds like a small figure, but the fact is that the emissions happen at a high altitude, where they have a larger impact than emissions on the ground. Also, aviation is a growth industry – despite the Swedes – and the emissions will keep growing unless aviation becomes even more concerned with emissions reductions.

Aviation has had ambitions environmental goals for a while now. The industry aims at fuel efficiency, carbon neutral growth and reducing CO2 emissions from aviation to half of 2005 levels by year 2050. All reductions should happen through carbon offsetting, new infrastructure, better operations, new technologies and sustainable aviation fuels. It is good to know that aviation related CO2 emissions have already halved since 1990 – thanks to new technology and operations. Some flights are already flown by sustainable fuels. The sad truth is that sustainable fuels cost much more than traditional jet fuel, making it unattractive for cost-conscious airlines. Also, sustainable fuels are not available at most airports around the world. There is thus still a lot to do to make aviation more environmentally sustainable.

If not flight shame, what can we do?

Well, we can book direct flights and use environmentally responsible airlines, avoid heavy luggage and take less things with us when we go on holiday or when we travel on business. We can travel with a less guilty consciousness by opting to compensate our emissions. Perhaps we can take staycations, spend more time at home or at our cottages, or travel by train. (Or, we could also try to lose weight – lighter loads will emit less than planes filled with heavy people, and it is good for our personal health as well. Yet another suggestion is to have a maximum of two kids – to combat climate change – just like Meghan and Harry are planning to!)

It is high time air travel started to reflect its real costs. Now it is luring consumers with too cheap prices. People have become addicted to cheap airline tickets. Perhaps governments need to interfere with the free market and add more taxes on the aviation industry to reflect the true cost of flying.

Having more people with the symptoms of flight shame will not save the world, but globally binding regulations can. Instead of spreading flight shame, it is important to spread objective truths and facts about what is going to happen in the future if we keep living and flying like there is no tomorrow. Swedish Greta Thunberg is already on the right path, we just need more Gretas to convince politicians and companies that they need to take action NOW.

Sources: Aviation statistics based on IATA: