People hate flight shame – but not enough to quit flying
A 2023 survey found that although people in the UK were increasingly concerned about aviation emissions – they were also more reluctant to fly less. This might reflect how flying has become normalized in society, aided by ticket prices, which are, on average, 61% cheaper in real terms than in 1998. Peers increasingly ask me about how they can fly “sustainably,” the “greenest” airlines, or the “best” carbon offsets to buy. People want to avoid flight shame, without avoiding flights.
The industry has reacted quickly. Websites like Skyscanner, used to compare flight options between destinations, now show customers a “greener choice” – displaying how much less C02 a certain flight emits, compared to the average for that route. These green choices are determined to be flights that use more direct routes, airlines that have newer aircraft, or can carry more passengers.
While there are cases where two airlines operating the same route can produce very different emissions, on short-haul routes, emissions differences are invariably small – usually less than 10%. The greenest option would be to travel by train, which has as much as 90% fewer emissions than equivalent flights. However, Skyscanner stopped showing passengers train options in 2019.
Meanwhile, popular budget airline Ryanair – whose CEO only recently admitted climate change isn’t a hoax – now claims to have the greenest fleet of air planes in Europe. The company’s modern, fuel efficient planes – alongside its ability to fill them with passengers – does make it the “greenest” air travel option out there. However, Ryanair had a total of 450 planes in operation in 2019 (compared to only 250 in 2010) – meaning that despite its fuel-efficient planes, the sheer quantity of fuel they burn is why they were named one of Europe’s top ten polluting companies in 2019.
Last year also saw carbon offset schemes become popular. These schemes allow passengers to pay extra so their airline can invest in environmental projects on their behalf – thereby making a flight theoretically “carbon-neutral”. British Airways now offsets all of its customers’ domestic UK flights, while Ryanair also has a scheme allowing passengers to buy offsets for their flights, with proceeds going to projects including a whale protection scheme – which appears completely unconnected to reducing carbon at all.
Easyjet has also started buying offsets on behalf of all its passengers – costing a total of PS25 million a year. This has apparently been a successful PR move, with internal research finding that passengers who were aware of the offsetting policy were more satisfied with their flight than customers who didn’t know.
Passengers might feel satisfied, but whether their offsets actually reduce carbon is less clear. Critics question the time lag associated with balances, especially tree-planting schemes. A plane that flies today pollutes today – but a tree planted today won’t remove carbon for years. As for “avoided deforestation” projects, which aim to protect existing trees, proving these trees wouldn’t have survived without offset funding is almost impossible.