Flight shame is not enough – only price changes behaviour

Angus Hanton, Co-founder of IF, argues that, if the cost of air travel was raised to reflect its true environmental damage, it would discourage air travel sufficiently to reduce that damage dramatically

Since I stopped flying 15 years ago, the number of flights worldwide has more than doubled from 2 billion to 4.5 billion each year. Clearly my example isn’t being followed!

People love flying, especially as they get wealthier – there’s been huge growth in air travel in China and in emerging economies where the new middle classes now follow the UK in jetting off to the “good life”.

Britain is the poster child for aircraft travel: Brits fly more than almost anyone else. Last year, one in every twelve airline passengers worldwide held a British passport.

The down-side is that, at the current rate of growth, it is predicted that by 2050 airplane emissions could account for 25% of the world’s “carbon budget”.

Aiding and abetting

This flying-fest isn’t entirely surprising when you consider the extremely low cost of airline tickets. Prices are well below true costs, with multiple government subsidies – including no taxes on airline fuel, absurdly generous treatment of VAT, and government funding for airport building.

The very low prices for flying – such as £20 flights from London to Warsaw or Rome – also fail to reflect the very real additional costs to the wider community of increased carbon emissions and pollution.

And Britain has been at the forefront of this race to the bottom in air travel pricing with its championing of EasyJet and Ryanair. Between them, they fly 750 aircraft, which spend the majority of their time in the air, producing the equivalent of about one tonne of carbon every minute, day in, day out.

Counting the cost

Here’s an illustration of how much the cost of air travel has dropped.

When I was born in 1959 a flight from London to Nairobi cost £200, according to an advert in the Reader’s Digest – about the equivalent of 3–4 months of the average salary at the time. Indexed up by inflation that should now be £4,500 in today’s money, but in fact the cost of a return ticket has dropped to around £450, so it’s down to only a tenth in real terms, or less than a week’s average salary. In 1959 people responded to that price signal by flying only very rarely.

Flying is also a class issue: 80% of the world’s population has never flown and, even in the UK, air travel is dominated by the middle class. The huge tax concessions and subsidies for air travellers are in fact a transfer from poor to rich, but much more crucially they are a transfer from future generations to today’s consumers.

Pricing them out

There is growing awareness of how damaging our planet-burning behaviour is. At its core it is the current generation (mostly older generations, but many young people too) who are destroying the planet for our children and grandchildren.

But many people love travelling by plane and will not respond much when we appeal only to their consciences – they will respond only to higher prices.

You can see that effect with cigarette smoking, where higher prices (now £12 for 20 cigarettes) have cut UK consumption sharply: it’s dropped by two-thirds over the last 60 years from 42% to 14%.

Again, looking at my Reader’s Digest magazine from the year I was born, we can see a major reason why consumption has dropped: the price of 20 cigarettes in 1959 was under £4 (adjusted for inflation), so during my life the real price of cigarettes has tripled and the number of smokers has plummeted.

Appeals to conscience have failed to reduce flying – in reality the only language consumers truly understand is price.

Governments need to charge much, much more in taxes on air travel if they want to reduce flying.

As a start, if aviation fuel were taxed on the same basis as petrol for cars that would roughly double ticket prices, but of course we need to go much further. If we raised the cost of flying to 1959 levels, ticket prices would go up ten-fold … and carbon emissions would plummet.

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