AIRLINES are reeling from the global spread of coronavirus. Many will be sent to the brink. Yet even when the industry emerges from the current crisis — whenever that may be — another threat is looming. Steve Jones reports on the rising issue of flight shaming.

It was a bold step for an airline to take, a move that flew in the face of logic and all business convention.

But there the message was, and a crystal clear one at that. “Could you take the train instead?” KLM told its passengers.

There was more. “Do you always have to meet face to face?” business travellers were asked. “We all have to fly every now and again. But next time, think about flying responsibly.”

Here was an airline, the Dutch flag carrier, encouraging prospective customers to eschew air travel in favour of the train, and advising them to replace physical meetings with video calls. Not exactly the rule-book approach to marketing.

Yet if KLM’s ethical approach was one-of-an-aviation kind, the core message — to reconsider flying — was already rapidly spreading from an altogether different, and less sympathetic source. In the months before KLM’s campaign launch, an anti-flying social movement had been growing which sought to create a stigma around flying and the damage it inflicts on the environment.

The aim was a simple one: to keep more feet on the ground by suggesting air travellers should be embarrassed, or ashamed, of their choice to fly.

Given the emergence of green-teen warrior Greta Thunberg, it’s perhaps unsurprising the flight shaming movement originated in her home country of Sweden.

The term flygskam, to give the native term for flight shaming, has since extended across Europe, and to a lesser extent, global markets.

So what has been the impact?

While Swedish airport operator Swedavia cited flight shaming as a factor in a 4% decline in traffic across 10 airports last year, assessing the tangible impact elsewhere is far harder to gauge. It’s also an issue that has been overshadowed in recent months by the more immediate and pressing coronavirus crisis which is hammering the industry.

Nevertheless, what is clear is that flygskam has sparked widespread conversation and debate concerning our travel habits. It will continue to do so for years to come.

Many airline executives have been forced to address the issue, with a variety of reactions, ranging from claims of “fake news” from Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr to Air France suggestions it could be the industry’s “biggest challenge” — an observation clearly made prior to recent events.

Most, however, have taken the middle ground, mindful of the need to reject the “shame” association with flying while anxious not to dismiss the environmental message behind the movement.

One aviation observer told travelBulletin: “Failing to recognise and appreciate the seriousness of the situation would be folly for the aviation industry, particularly in a sector regarded, unfairly, as the nemesis of the environment. Airlines, along with IATA, need to articulate the positive actions they are taking to address carbon emissions. That’s what they’re trying to do, rather than dismissing flygskam out of hand.”

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that aviation feels unfairly picked on by environmentalists who, it believes, ignore efforts being made by the industry.

Aviation is responsible for a little over 2% of global carbon emissions. According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), if aviation was a country that figure would put it among the top 10 emitters in the world. However, using the same country analogy, the Air Transport Action Group stressed the importance of the sector by calculating that aviation would rank as 20th largest nation in terms of generated GDP.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said on LinkedIn he was “proud” of the airline’s response to the climate crisis, but appeared to express frustration it was not being recognised.

“Airlines globally are aiming to halve CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels,” he wrote. “From 2021 we’ll have carbon neutral growth on international flights — the first in the industry to make this happen. Despite this there are campaigns in some parts of Europe to shame people into not taking flights. And various governments are considering new surcharges on airfares, similar to ‘sin’ taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. These are retrograde steps.”

Joyce went on to warn of the impact such steps would have on the global economy, trade, jobs, tourism and on isolated destinations, Australia included.

“The focus should be on how we reduce the impact of flying, not simply to stop doing it,” he added. “Airlines are taking action on climate change, but we need to do a better job of telling people that.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) told travelBulletin it was “too early” to assess if flight shaming will impact demand but conceded aviation “must be seen to be taking action to reduce its emissions”. Furthermore, only by educating the public about aviation’s past and future work to reduce emissions “can people make an informed choice about their travel options”.

“The industry’s license to grow depends on acceptance from society that air travel is beneficial, so we must deliver on our carbon commitments, including reducing CO2 to half 2005 levels by 2050,” a spokesperson said. “We understand that many people have deep concerns about the environment and climate change [but] we don’t want anyone to feel ashamed to fly. Flying is the business of freedom. It brings families and friends together, creates trade and prosperity and enriches cultural understanding. A global air transport network on a flightpath to sustainability is something people should be supporting, not ashamed of.”

Yet it’s not only airlines who will monitor the evolving flight shame movement and its potential impact on travel habits. Any change will inevitably have broad implications for the wider travel and tourism industry.

Intrepid Environment Impact Specialist Susanne Etti suggested the rising discussion will further prick the conscience of travellers, most of whom are already acutely aware of the planet’s precarious future.

“We predict that increasing numbers of people will fly less often and stay longer [in their destinations], she said. “They will also spend more time exploring their own country.

“Over time a lower carbon structure will need to be built into tourism products. Where possible we are converting flights to trains on the ground in destinations likes China that have the infrastructure and invested in long-distance, high-speed train travel.”

A similarly effective rail infrastructure weaves across Europe, providing a viable alternative to air travel, both for citizens and tourists.

 

Unsurprisingly, Rail Europe has used the rising environmental debate to promote the continent’s extensive — and greener — train network. The rail distributor claimed growth from Australia of 10% in 2019, although it acknowledged the reasons for the rise were varied.

“I feel the environmental factor is still bundled in with other benefits — ease of use, convenience, speed and price,” Blaze James, Asia Pacific Marketing, Partnerships and Communications Manager at Rail Europe said. “The environment is not necessarily the only driver. But we believe that flight shaming and general awareness of environmental topics definitely contributes to more travellers choosing trains over planes in Europe. With the increased transparency and more talk about how flying damages the environment, it’s becoming a more prominent element.”

Electing alternative transport to zip between cities in Asia or Europe is one thing. But over time, could the rise of flight shaming dampen overseas travel from Australia altogether? Given our isolated location, and obvious lack of viable alternatives in leaving the country, it would seem highly unlikely, at least not to any meaningful degree.

Nevertheless, Etti, from Intrepid, suggested behaviour could change, with an increasing propensity to travel to shorter haul destinations as tourists scale back their long haul flying. But she stopped short of saying people will simply stop travelling.

“Australia is more limited in alternatives [to flying], so we have seen more interest in carbon offsetting rather than avoiding flights altogether,” she said.

Claudia Rossi, managing director of Mary Rossi Travel in Sydney, said Australians will, in all probability, continue travelling as normal, while remaining conscious of the environment.

That growing awareness manifests itself by clients requesting newer aircraft, which have more efficient fuel economy and lower emissions, Rossi said.

Others were more robust in their response to flight shaming. Virtuoso Asia Pacific MD Michael Londregan said it was too easy to criticise air travel, and highlighted the huge benefits of tourism.

“Tourism is the largest employer in the world, it’s hardwired to the sustainability of the environment, possibly more than any other major industry,” he said. “And people who travel are unquestionably more global in their perspectives. We need this industry to grow and thrive. I say shame on those looking to take pot shots at those who are travelling.”

Yet Spencer Travel MD Penny Spencer cited a recent example of an Australian traveller who told her she will fly only once a year, and only in economy because of the need to reduce emissions.

However, despite direct experience of the issue, Spencer suspected the flight shaming agenda was being pursued by “a very small category of people”.

“It’s easy to push in Sweden where you can get everywhere by train or car. It’s a bit more difficult in Australia where we are an island and have to fly to get anywhere outside of our own country,” she told travelBulletin.

Neither is the corporate sector discussing flight shame, Spencer added, although they are “talking about sustainability in choosing the right suppliers, airlines and hotels”.

Such a view was backed by other corporate agents. CWT said it had yet to experience any “significant reduction” in flight bookings, highlighting the “certain benefits” of face to face meetings that technology can’t replace. But the business agency added sustainability was “no doubt top of mind”.

“Clients are increasingly seeking our guidance on ways to reduce the environmental impact of their travel programs,” a spokesperson said, adding that “100%” of client request for proposals enquire about CWT’s responsible travel policies.

But not all companies seem overly concerned about their carbon footprint. A Green Travel Whitepaper released in late 2019 by American Express Global Business Travel found only 42% of survey respondents measured their carbon emissions from air travel. In addition, almost eight out of 10 admitted that reducing their carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emission was not addressed in their travel policy.

An American Express Global Business Travel whitepaper found only 42% of survey respondents measured their carbon emissions from air travel, suggesting that flight shaming is yet to have a huge impact on corporate travel.

Despite strong growth in rail travel, James, from Rail Europe, said Australia may be a tougher nut to crack for the flygskam movement.

“But at least it’s making its way within domestic connections,” he said. “I’m still hoping to see more cruise shaming as, in my opinion, it hurts the environment and local communities even more.”

Many studies certainly point to cruising as another carbon emitting culprit. Cruise ships account for approximately 0.2% of all carbon dioxide emissions, significantly less than aviation, but spread across far fewer passengers. The ICCT estimate that even the most efficient liners emit three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger-km than jet aircraft.

But while the shaming movement may be gaining traction in some markets, experts say a concerted and widespread attempt to guilt people into flying less could backfire.

According to environmental health specialist Tony Capon, a professor at Monash University’s Sustainable Development Institute, large swathes of society may not take kindly to being lectured.

“There are risks with making people feel ashamed because potentially they will block the whole discussion on the environment,” he told travelBulletin. “But I think it will develop as a movement. We’re all having to grapple with these kind of dilemmas.

“In my mind, this movement is trying to get people to reflect, to pause to think and to make more conscious decisions.”

That could manifest itself by holidaymakers taking one annual four-week international trip rather than two shorter breaks. Aside from helping the environment, such extended breaks could be good for public health, Capon said.

While airlines insist they are taking action to reduce emissions, Capon said more creative thinking was required. Domestically, that could involve airlines investing in a rail infrastructure — one that is worthy of the name — on the east coast, and from Perth to Melbourne.

“Our government should be looking at faster trains on the east coast, which should have been done years ago. And there is no reason why Qantas and Virgin Australia could not be part of that process,” Capon suggested.

“Rather than holding on to the past, they could step back and be part of more sustainable future. Why not be part of the solution? Ultimately there could be Qantas Trains operating between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.”

Fanciful thinking? Maybe not. Along with urging passengers to ‘fly responsibly’, KLM is replacing one its five daily flights between Amsterdam Schiphol and Brussels with a high speed Thalys train.

It may be a small step, but it’s the type of alternative thinking that may be required.

“When we started 100 years ago our major concern was safety,” KLM chief executive Pieter Elbers said. “Little did we know about the impact we would have on the environment. Today, we know aviation comes with another big responsibility — to make sure our children have a planet to explore.”