Michael Staines
Michael Staines

21.15 31 May 2021


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The airline industry must stop rewarding an “elite minority of frequent flyers” for the huge climate damage they are causing.

On The Hard Shoulder this evening, Environmental commentator John Gibbons continued his calls for a “rapidly escalating levy system” that charges people increasing amounts to travel by plane depending on how often they do it.

Meanwhile, CityJet CEO Pat Byrne warned that any attempt to intervene in the industry could cause it to shrink – making air travel unaffordable for most people into the future.

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'Elite minority of frequent flyers' account for more than half the world's flights

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Mr Gibbons began the debate by noting that greenhouse gas emissions related to air travel have more than doubled since 1990.

He said greener aircraft designs have been completely overwhelmed by the massive growth in the sector, with passenger kilometres in and out of the EU increasing by 60% between 2005 and 2017.

“We can’t leave this to the free market,” he said. “The free market has had 30 years to get emissions in the sector down and global aviation emissions have doubled since 1990.

“Therefore simply applying technological fixes and improvements in aircraft efficiency isn’t working as long as the business model is simply piling people as cheaply as possible into aircraft.”

'Archaic exemptions'

He said it is time for an end to the “archaic exemptions” that make airline fuel tax and duty-free for airlines.

He noted that no other industry in the world “gets as much of a free ride in terms of massive subsidies” and warned that the exemptions “represent a transfer of billions of Euros from the general taxpayer into the aviation sector.”

“An elite minority of frequent flyers, consisting of less than 1% of the world’s population are accounting for more than 50% of the world’s flying,” he said. “So flying is an elite sport, particularly for these heavy-duty frequent flyers.

“The system we have developed over the years, instead of penalising people for the grossly disproportionate share of the global atmosphere they are taking … what we do instead is we reward them with frequent flyer points.”

A Plane In The Sky A Plane In The Sky in Alberta, Canada. Image: John Kroetch/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

He said it is time to think about doing things differently.

"I believe we can," he said "I think many businesses have discovered as a result of the COVID lockdown that an awful lot of business travel is actually pretty wasteful.

“We have businesses going to conferences here and there and we have and academic’s flying around the world to deliver a 15-minute presentation to twenty people in a room someplace and I think many people have discovered that technologies like Zoom and so on area perfectly good alternative to this."

Unnafordable

Mr Byrne said the exemptions and large numbers of people flying are necessary to enable companies to keep improving planes.

“For a start, we either accept that flying is part of what we do as a species or it is not,” he said. “Flying is tremendously important.”

He warned that too much intervention on the sector could make flying unaffordable for most people.

“There is still an enormous leisure industry and an enormous business industry,” he said.

“Business is a contact sport. You cannot do business over the phone interminably or on Zoom meetings.

“You can certainly modify your consumption of air travel but air travel is still extremely necessary and we have to be very careful here. If we absolutely try and shrink air travel to an uneconomic level then air travel goes out of the realm of affordability for most people because it is a dreadfully expensive business.”

Dangerous

He said intervention could see the price of short-hop flights increasing to hundreds of Euros.

“If you want to shrink the industry by all means go ahead and have these interventions that are very, very dangerous,” he said.

“Market forces should always dictate on things like this. You start to do this kind of intervention; it is very dangerous and be careful what you wish for.”

Back in April, Mr Gibbons called for a “rapidly escalating levy system” that charges passengers more depending on how often they travel.

He noted that the system would not affect people who only travel once or twice a year but would target those who “decide it is their God-given right to travel hither and tither at the drop of a hat.”

You can listen back here:

'Elite minority of frequent flyers' account for more than half the world's flights

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