CHIANG RAI, 10 June 2019: Buzz phrase “Flight shame” gained a passing mention on the sidelines of the International Air Transport Association’s annual general meeting held in Seoul earlier this month.
But we are going to hear more about it in the future sung from the hymn sheet of warriors saving the planet.
I had never heard of it until I read a column in ‘Stuff’ a New Zealand online travel news service at the weekend. Apparently, some airline executive attending the IATA AGM warned of an anti-flying sentiment that will spread fast if it is left unchallenged, the Stuff report claimed.
By all accounts “flygkam” in Swedish became a buzz world when Greta Thunberg a teenage activist toured Europe calling on leaders to do more to reverse climate change. She travelled entirely by train.
Note we are talking about flight shame rather than an aversion to actually travelling. Do people really feel shame when they fly halfway around the world on business or holiday?
Research shows that travel will continue to expand rapidly fuelling more investments in hotels and bringing the blight of ‘overtourism’ to the doorsteps of pristine destinations. That is inevitable. It comes with the territory when we say tourism is essential for economic growth.
But the Stuff report does point out that the European Union noted that a “person flying from London to New York and back generates about the same carbon emission as they would from heating their homes for an entire year.”
Just how many times do travel and hotel executives travel from Asia to the Americas and Europe all in the name of promoting the travel industry? I reckon 10 trips a year on average would be about right.
Flight shame is about recognising that if the aviation industry happened to be a country it would be among the world’s 10 worst polluters. Should shame drive us to curtail our flying habits?
It is not that the 150 odd leaders of airlines who met at the IATA AGM agree with the phrase or its sentiments. They recognise the trend as a negative influence on aviation’s growth and possibly a factor that could ultimately increase the tax burden on airlines if it goes unchecked. They would like to nip the flight shame message in the bud before it really blooms.
It’s about communications and a PR message, not the fact that more people are deeply concerned that if we do not rein in climate change we lose the places we love to visit.
But IATA is making an effort saying its 290 airline members intend to cut carbon emissions by 2025 to about half the monitored level in 2005.
By 2035, IATA claims new aircraft engine designs and fuels will start to encourage a real-time decline in carbon emissions globally. In the meantime what do we do about flight shame?
Are we supposed to shy away from airline travel or even stay closer to home when on holiday? Frankly, I don’t think that is an appealing option. Travel is now considered a right rather than a luxury.
It is relatively easy for Europeans to indulge the flight shame message as the continent is blessed with an extensive train network.
Here in Asia, with the exception of China, Japan and South Korea, we are lagging behind in train transport and that means we all rely on airlines even for domestic travel.
In reality, citizens of Southeast Asia don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to travel. We fly because the alternatives are risky, uncomfortable, out-dated and potentially damaging to health and the environment.
In fact, the economies of Southeast Asia would suffer and destinations that rely on tourism slip off the radar if airline transport was curtailed.
While it unlikely flight shame will rub off on travellers in this region, the travel industry could do more to ensure that when new airline routes are opened that they are flying with enough passengers to justify the exercise. More needs to be done by the travel industry to engage with airlines effectively route manage and market case-by-case to ensure seats flown actually have passengers. There is considerable waste due to competition and when airlines do establish direct flights cutting out the wasteful backtracking and time-consuming connecting services they are not getting the support of national tourist offices, governments and airports. That needs to change.