Flight pledge: Grounding passengers

Who wants to sign an agreement to limit the number of flights we take a year?

Peter Smith

Topics Politics

Would you sign a pledge to limit the number of flights you take each year? The UK based environmental organisation Flight Pledge Union launched a web-based initiative last week, asking us to commit to cutting our flights (see

There are two options available – gold and silver. Those signing up to the ‘gold’ pledge promise not to fly at all over the next 12 months (except in a personal or family emergency). If you sign the ‘silver’ pledge, you promise not to take more than two return short-haul flights, or one return long-haul flight, in the coming year (again, except for an emergency). Once signed up, you receive a certificate confirming your promise.

Environmentalists concerned with the impact of airline emissions have made the aviation industry a key target of their campaigns. Flight Pledge joins this wider criticism of air travel and low-cost airlines in particular. The backdrop for this is the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for low-cost air travel. Last year British airports were used by 216million people, and this is expected to rise to 100million by 2020, and to 500million a year by 2030 (1).

Given the increasing popularity of low-cost air travel, environmental groups have been savvy in their campaigning approach. A key Green criticism of air travel is that – unlike domestic fuel or petrol – airline fuel is untaxed. Friends of the Earth points out that essentially the airline industry receives £7billion in tax breaks and subsidies from the government each year (2). On the face of it this sounds radical; nobody really likes seeing big business receive government handouts.

Yet in an advanced economy, governments support a range of industries and infrastructure, such as rail, road and, yes, air travel – for good reason. Transportation links are essential for a fully operating economy and prosperous modern society. In fact, it is difficult to think of an industry that does not in some way receive government handouts, either directly or indirectly. It is unlikely that air travel’s critics would support cuts in subsidies to organic farming or micro breweries, for example.

The environmentalists’ ‘big-business-receives-government-backhander’ argument hides their real intent: to remove the non-taxable status of airline fuel as a means to significantly increase the price of airline tickets. Or, in other words, to raise the cost of tickets so that most of us simply can’t afford to fly. Back in 2003 when the Treasury was considering doubling air passenger duty, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner Roger Higman was explicit: ‘Increasing air passenger duty has an unstoppable logic and we would fully support it as an effective way to reduce the demand for flying.’ (3)

The result of the environmentalists’ proposals for aviation would be a return to the early stages of leisure air travel in the 1950s and early 60s, when only the rich were able to travel by air. Campaigning on this ticket doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? I for one prefer to view the government aid to airlines as a welcome subsidy on the public’s holidays.

Which leads to another key focus of environmentalist campaigning – ‘unnecessary travel’. In case we are in doubt, Flight Pledge advises us that it is ‘trying to target frequent, casual, short distance, short break, leisure flights – flights that are only possible because they are cheap…’ (4). More ominously, in discussing the trend for buying property overseas and taking weekend trips in Europe, Richard Dyer of Friends of the Earth warns, ‘Ending or changing these patterns of behaviour is all the harder to do once they are established’ (5).

But who is to decide what ‘unnecessary travel’ is? Are we to let environmental campaigners have a veto over our trips or should the government introduce rationing of air travel? This is a far cry from the not-so-distant past when being ‘well travelled’ was seen as being cosmopolitan and something to which we should aspire. Surely travelling, seeing and experiencing far-flung places opens our eyes? No, modern campaigners such as Flight Pledge want us to have and aspire to less, to limit ourselves – perhaps to a week in Somerset (by train not car, naturally) or even to stay at home and enjoy the pleasures around us.

The launch of Flight Pledge has certain positive elements. The initiative is at least aimed at the general public and asks us to voluntarily pledge to reduce our trips by air. This could have the benefit of potentially measuring the public’s view on the merits of cheap air travel. It will be interesting to revisit this question in six or 12 months, and compare the number of pledges against the number of low-cost airline travellers.

This would at least get something approaching a democratic ‘vote’ on this issue – if only it were to end there. The more tried and tested tactic employed by non-elected environmentalist campaigners is to bypass the public and directly lobby the government to introduce mandatory measures to limit our ability to fly. Expect more of this than the Flight Pledge voluntary approach.

Peter Smith lectures in tourism at St. Mary’s College, a college of the University of Surrey.

(1) Aviation, UK government

(2) Friends of the Earth

(3) Brown plan to double air tax, Guardian, 28 October 2003

(4) Flight Pledge Union

(5) ‘Cheap flights threaten UK targets for carbon emissions’, Independent, 28 January 2006

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Topics Politics


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