Since March 2020, most of us have experienced something unimaginable for Europe’s founding fathers: closed borders and travel restrictions. The visual impact was striking: tarmacs full of aircraft, ghost duty-free shops and empty skies.
Never before had emissions fallen so dramatically. Air travel emissions decreased by 61 per cent during the pandemic. Of the 64.4 Mtoe reduction in total European Union’s (EU) oil consumption in 2020 compared to 2019, 37 per cent was due to the drop in international aviation, despite only representing 6.3 per cent of transport oil consumption. Neighbourhoods around airports discovered peace again, and bird species even started reappearing near tarmacs.
For the business travellers accustomed to frequent flying, the pandemic offered a wholly new perspective on work-life balance. In no time, businesses successfully adapted to a new way of working. The ease with which many employees adjusted to being home and flying less revealed that those long-held ideas of the need to fly for work no longer stand.
The cost savings for businesses was significant. Amazon claims to have saved $1 billion in travel expenses in 2020 alone. Top consulting firm Capgemini, which sends over 30 per cent of its workforce on foreign trips, would have saved the better part of the $600 million spent on travel in 2019.
For many companies, air business travel is a large part of their environmental footprint and they realised that by reducing flying they can show leadership in the climate crisis while meeting investor expectations. So, is it really worth returning to pre-pandemic levels of flying?
Considering the current chaos at airports, summer-goers and business travellers may think twice before boarding their plane. No one is quite ready for those airport queues, axed flights and soaring ticket prices. Airport executives predict normality won’t return for another few months. The Dutch carrier KLM has just announced that until 28 August, 10 to 20 return flights to European destinations will be cancelled each day.
Meanwhile, ticket prices are silently creeping up. For example, the London-Alicante route tripled in price since last year. Businesses won’t stay immune either. Intra-European business class fares booked to date for the months of July to September 2022 are 33 per cent higher than in 2019. Transatlantic business class passengers will have to pay 16 per cent more in Q3 of this year, compared to 2019.
Whilst our purses may be hurting, it’s time to reflect on the cost of aviation. The price of our tickets do not accurately reflect the climate impact of flying. As the impacts of climate change and our warming planet are more visible and more alarming than ever, carbon-intensive activities like flying will need to be priced accordingly.
A carbon market for aviation (in the EU there is one called the EU ETS) should apply to as many flights as possible, where airlines have to pay for the pollution. This money can then be invested in green technologies, like sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen aircraft, which will in future enable us to fly without polluting.
These green fuels, called sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), are not cheap. But if we legislate them and increase their uptake (such a law is in place in Europe, whereby airlines have to fly with an increasing amount of SAFs each year), rules of the market dictate that they will become cheaper.
For the time being, as green technologies take time to develop, flying remains a polluting activity. The only green flight is the one that doesn’t fly. In Europe, rail travel is – albeit still too expensive – very practical. Find out where you can travel within five hours in Europe by train here (a few examples below).
Slow and sustainable tourism is not only in fashion, but it also makes sense. Crowded beaches are unpleasant but they are not sustainable either. Many countries across the world, starting with Europe, have understood the drawbacks of mass tourism and are trying to preserve their prized locations for generations to come.
For business flyers, boarding a flight should no longer be second nature. The pandemic made us realise that remote working is possible – oftentimes much nicer. From now on, a smarter approach to corporate travel is necessary. Travelling smart – as the name of Transport & Environment’s new campaign indicates – is making every single meeting count, by flying less and achieving more.
Air travel is not as romantic as it once was. We should all be considering the cost to the environment, to our time and wellbeing and to our ecosystems before boarding a flight.