Flygskam, the Swedish word for “flight shame”, and the environmental movement associated with it, is gathering force. More and more of us are thinking about the ecological impact of our travel as the irrefutable evidence of climate change becomes all too real for an increasing number of people.
Last month, France introduced an additional tax on aviation to be spent on cleaner methods of transportation — €1.50 in shorthaul economy through to €18 in longhaul business — to howls of despair from the aviation industry. This reaction seemed to me, even as an aviation journalist, to be badly misreading the room. If aviation had to pay for all its impact on local and global environments, it would be a lot more expensive.
Extensive tax breaks - including not paying VAT on fuel - don’t help to make the airline industry’s point. Moreover, it isn’t helping passengers to make informed, better decisions, and that itself means that the industry is failing to make its own set of decisions based on passenger behaviour.
Realistically speaking, flying is bad for the environment, and there’s a lot more to be done to make lower-emissions travel easier: making domestic connections to longhaul flights by rail instead of air, for example. There are far too few easy and cost-efficient ways to do this, and airlines need to do better here.
But don’t despair: in addition to the radical changes needed, you can make some small changes that also add up to big differences.
Look for new, more efficient planes to save up to 50% on fuel emissions
Many of us want to reduce the impact of our flying, but there’s no easy way to figure out if you’re booking a gas-guzzler or a more efficient modern airplane. As many plane nerds like me know from picking flights based on what kind of seat, inflight entertainment and wifi system is on board, none of that is guaranteed...and the airline’s terms and conditions we all agree to say that’s perfectly fine.
Newer planes can cut emissions significantly, and even though planes are never guaranteed, airlines do monitor which of their planes are more popular with customers. For example, British Airways is estimating that its new Airbus A350-1000 will burn about half as much fuel as its older Boeing 747-400. That’s largely down to having two brand-new, super-efficient engines.
The most modern planes include the Airbus A350, A330neo and Boeing 787 for longhaul flights. (The A330neo, which stands for ‘new engine option’, is an evolution of the older A330 planes, so do keep an eye out for the difference there.) The A380 is also pretty good too.
On the shorter haul, the A320neo and A321neo are new and burn less fuel. So does the A220, a smaller jet, and once the 737 MAX gets back in the sky it has the new fuel-efficient engines too. The E2 generation of the Embraer E-Jet (E190-E2, E195-E2 rather than the E190 or E195) also has new engines.
However, the most efficient on routes of a couple of hours or less are turboprop aircraft (the ones with visible propellers rather than the jet engines we’re used to) like the Bombardier Dash-8 (AKA Q400) or the ATR 72.
Consume mindfully on the aircraft
Pack lightly: every gram saved in weight is a gram the airplane doesn’t have to burn fuel to carry. But do bring a water bottle with you, and fill it up at the terminal to drink on board.
If you can, take anything to be recycled off the aircraft, especially on international flights where human health and biosecurity regulations usually mean that anything coming from a plane has to be either burned or taken straight to landfill.
If buy-on-board food is your only option, consider bringing from home instead, which will reduce the demand for airlines to carry inflight food, reducing emissions and waste. If your airline allows you the option to prebook a meal, do so: it helps them to transport fewer meals because there are usually extras.
Plant-based diets have lower environmental impacts, particularly compared with the sort of volume-based meat agriculture used for most airline food. Tick the box to pick a vegetarian or vegan meal in advance to reduce your impact and, as a bonus, special meals are usually served first.
Also consider whether you can wear a sweater instead of reaching for that plastic-wrapped airline blanket, bring headphones from home, keep your own eyemask and earplugs.
Make your views known to your airline — and politicians
Many elected representatives are thinking about making aviation pay its fair share of the costs of its operations, like adding VAT to fuel and implementing emissions charging. If you agree, tell them.
Don’t hesitate to take a few minutes to tell airlines about how important the environment is for you. No new planes on the routes you want to fly? No good plant-based food options? Wasteful packaging? Or did they do something you approved of?
Airlines’ default assumptions are that passengers care about very little other than the price of their tickets. Drop them a quick note to let them know you care about them being as responsible as they can be about their impact on our shared planet.
As an aviation journalist based in France, John Walton writes regularly on travel for Lonely Planet and a variety of aviation magazines. He welcomes questions and discussions from readers on Twitter or via email to email@example.com