The short-haul ban is a great start, but now we have to reimagine modern airports
No flights are allowed if your train journey is less than two-and-a-half hours. The French National Assembly recently approved this idea as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry.
The fine print. In practice, connecting flights are exempt, and only five routes in France will be affected. These are mainly those that originate from Paris-Orly Airport (ORY). Around 12 percent of France’s internal flights are expected to be cut, but the majority of the network is still intact.
Flights less than 500 km contributed to less than 4% the total EU aviation emissions in 2019 despite accounting for one quarter of all European flights. In 2020, only 6% of EU flights travelled more than 4,000 km, but they produced over half of the EU’s total emissions. Short-haul flights use more fuel than long-haul flights because the majority of it is used during takeoff. It makes sense to reduce them wherever possible, even if it has a small effect on overall emissions.
The ban on short-haul flight is also important because it represents one of the few times in history that a politician from a wealthy nation has endorsed a policy that many, if no all, were reluctant to even consider. It’s not always desirable or necessary to have high-carbon conveniences. To combat climate change, it is essential to curb the most polluting aspects.
Slow but greener
Most initiatives to make air travel sustainable were focused on making planes more efficient or penalizing high-polluting aircraft.
The use of sustainable fuels and these approaches could gradually reduce emissions on long-haul flights with no substitute. Some academics argue a culture change is needed for shorter trips with multiple options of travel. One that encourages less consumption and greater sufficiency over speed and convenience. It also raises the question whether other ways of traveling that have a smaller footprint would suffice.
Researchers suggest that such a change in attitude could be beneficial. A study conducted in Australia showed that switching from air travel to high-speed rail between Sydney and Melbourne could reduce CO2 emissions 18% within three decades. This includes emissions from the development and maintenance of all rail infrastructure.
Read more: Plane, train, or automobile? The climate impact of transport is surprisingly complicated.
In Finland, a recent analysis suggested that replacing all national short-haul flights with train travel could reduce CO₂ emissions in these trips by 95%. Even traveling by car or bus for similar distances is better for the planet than hopping on a plane.
It may be difficult to convince people to abandon short-distance air travel. The French proposals show that most short-haul flights carry connecting passengers to and from airline hubs. This opens up more travel options, especially for those living in remote areas.
We know as passengers that the airline has to give us a seat even if we miss our connecting flight. We are responsible for the cost of a rail connection. Many people buy Flexi tickets or think about long relationships. This means more waiting time and higher costs. An integrated ticketing system across all modes of transportation could provide a solution, as it would ensure that connections are automatically rebooked, whether on land or in the air.
Many people can wait for hours or even days in airports to connect flights. Naeblys/Shutterstock
This idea has already taken off. Some airlines offer combined rail and air tickets, such as AirFrance. Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn are working together to replace flights for national connections with trains. The Spanish national rail company Renfe, is also developing an integrated service that could include both short flights and longer train journeys. Gatwick Connects, which was launched at London Gatwick Airport in 2015, simplified connections between low-cost airlines. Passengers were automatically rebooked if necessary. The same concept could also be applied to ground connections at the airport.
It is not enough to have a train station near the airport if the goal is to eliminate short-haul flight completely. It is time to redesign airports into fully connected hubs that seamlessly link ground and air travel. This includes integrated tickets, smooth ground-based connections (but with longer wait times), and a coordinated system of air-ground transportation.