What is ‘flight shaming’?

An empty plane

The primary narrative surrounding air travel over the last few years – even with ever more damning reports on the industry’s contribution to man-made climate breakdown – is of exponential growth. As flying becomes less expensive, it enables more and more passengers to travel easily and cheaply around the world. Boeing’s recent Commercial Market Outlook 2019 – 2038 report suggests that over the next two decades, the air travel market is likely to grow by a factor of 2.5.

However, there is an – at present – relatively minor, but still growing, contingent of people whose anxieties about climate change are leading them in a different direction. The new phenomenon of ‘flight shaming’, in which travellers make a conscious decision to avoid air travel and use more environmentally friendly methods, has made inroads most notably in Sweden – not coincidentally the home country of superstar teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who recently made headlines travelling to the US by boat for a major public appearance. The country’s 10 busiest airports have seen passenger numbers drop by five per cent between summer 2018 and summer 2019, and the local Flygfritt movement has claimed that it has pushed nearly 15,000 Swedish citizens to avoid air travel this year.

The movement is not just confined to Sweden – growth seems to be slow but steady, with similar initiatives rising in the UK (with the Flight Free 2020 campaign), Canada, Belgium and France. And this is not just a consumer initiative – some organisations such as newspapers, whose employees need to travel regularly, are taking steps to offset the flights their workers need to take and encourage alternative transport methods, while climate scientists are naturally choosing to fly less, with others in the academic world following suit.

So, what does this mean for the travel industry? A recent Reuters article quoted Alexandre de Juniac, Director-General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), as saying that he believes the movement will likely spread to other countries such as the US – which thus far seems to have proven resistant to the trend. It is important, he stated, for the air industry to both better publicise the achievements it has made (for example by cutting the carbon emissions of each individual airline passenger in half since 1990) and stick to its commitments (such as carbon-neutral growth from next year).

A potential rise in alternative travel arrangements, however, does not need to be a bad thing for the travel industry as a whole. A train journey, for example, offers an entirely different experience than a trip on a plane, not least an opportunity for travellers to take in a variety of views from a much different, more intimate angle. And with the hunger for ‘experiential’ travel rising in recent years, savvy travel companies could relatively easily convert flight anxiety into a desire to take a slightly different route.

However the travel industry reacts, it is inarguable that change is afoot. A little late, perhaps – and likely too late to avoid some of the negative impacts of climate breakdown – but any change, no matter how minor, has to be celebrated as a step in the right direction. Even if it does have an effect on a company’s bottom line ...