Should there be an aviation tax on frequent fliers?

Published by Georgia Crump on

Mile for mile, flying is by far the worst form of transport for the environment. As a priority we need to address the carbon footprint of air travel. The idea of an aviation tax on frequent fliers is often floated as one way of discouraging people from flying unnecessarily. This avoids penalising people who only fly occasionally. But so far no airline or government has implemented an aviation tax.

With the return of air travel on the horizon, we take a look at whether a tax on frequent flying could be a way of fighting climate change. 

The environmental impact of flying

The aviation industry contributes around 2.5% of the total man-made CO2 emissions each year. Flying results in more emissions per hour than any other activity, apart from starting forest fires. 

“If aviation were a country it would be the world’s 7th worst polluter

Now you might be thinking: but we haven’t flown anywhere in over a year now. According to research conducted by the Global Carbon Project, CO2 emissions from aviation were reduced by up to 60% at the peak of the pandemic. However, as travel restrictions ease, there is likely to be a surge in people taking international flights. This includes holidays, visiting loved ones, and business travel. And scientists already confirm that last year’s reductions will not be enough to have a meaningful impact on the rate of climate change. 

An “elite minority” causing the most damage

A recent report published by environmental group Possible found that a small minority of people around the world are responsible for a large share of flights. 

In the UK, 15% of the population takes 70% of all flights. This pattern is the same across the developed world, where people with higher incomes fly much more regularly. 

A global study found that in 2018 just 1% of the world’s population are responsible for half of aviation’s carbon emissions. In the same year, approximately 90% of the population did not fly at all. 

Essentially, this means that wealthy people in wealthy countries are disproportionately responsible for emissions that are impacting everyone. In particular countries in the Global South, who experience the effects of climate change the most severely. Hardly fair, is it?

Currently, the aviation industry encourages frequent flying through loyalty points schemes such as air miles. Regular fliers receive cheap flights and travel perks. This internal points currency (you can only spend the points on more flights) incentivises people to keep flying often. 

A tax on frequent fliers? 

Whilst the best scenario would be to stop air travel entirely, most people acknowledge that this is unrealistic and also unfair. There is a huge difference between a CEO who takes 30 flights a month, and a family going abroad for their holidays once in a blue moon, or an emergency flight to visit a loved one on the other side of the world. 

The idea of a frequent flier levy has been raised by Possible as a way of discouraging frequent flying without punishing everyone. In this scenario, the first flight in a year incurs little or no tax, so occasional flights are not penalised. But then for each flight after this, the cost rises. The money collected in tax would be put towards environmental initiatives to offset the impact of flying. The aim would be to encourage a mental shift, to see flying as a luxury, rather than a habitual mode of transport. 

Domestic flights are the worst polluters

The UK would be a good place to trial an aviation tax. Pre-Covid, there were 12 flights a day running between London and Manchester. This journey takes just 2 hours by train. The emissions per kilometre for domestic flights are 70% higher than long haul, as a lot of pollution is produced during take-off and landing.

In France, domestic flights have been banned where the destination can be reached by train in under two and a half hours. This accounts for 12% of all domestic flights. Although moderate in scale (and even more so once watered down by President Macron’s team), this is the first time a major economy has banned air travel for environmental reasons. 

However, rather than follow France’s example, the UK Treasury has proposed to half tax on domestic flights by cutting air passenger duty. This would have the opposite effect of actually encouraging flying. 

this does little to deal with the fact that domestic flights are often much cheaper than train tickets. A graded levy approach to flying might provide a better solution to target those taking regular flights. 

Resistance from the aviation industry

Unsurprisingly, there has been strong resistance from the aviation industry to the idea of a frequent flier levy. Michael Gill, executive director at the International Air Transport Association, who represent the world’s airlines, was against an aviation tax. “Taxes have proved to be an ineffective way to tackle emissions. The focus instead should be on practical means to mitigate the CO2 impact of aviation.”, said Gill.

Could carbon neutral flight technology be a solution?

Scientists and engineers are working on developing carbon neutral fuels for aircrafts and technology to reduce the emissions from flying. And many airlines do have strategies in place to offset their emissions and targets to cut their emissions by 2050. However, the UK Climate Change Committee advises that zero-carbon flying is “highly unlikely” to be in place by 2050. They add that novel fuels are “highly speculative and should not be relied upon”. 

Instead, many environmentalists believe that we need an attitude shift when it comes to frequent flying. Until flying is a completely carbon neutral activity, there is no better way to cut emissions than cut the number of flights. 

Data shows that the UK, China, and the US have the highest national emissions from flying. And per capita, the UK and Australia are in the top 5 countries for the highest emissions levels. In order to successfully reduce CO2 levels we need to reduce the number of flights being taken every year from these countries. 

A tax on frequent flying could be a successful way of doing so. The pandemic has taught us that we don’t need to fly halfway round the world to have conversations that can be done on video call. Nor do we need to always take our holidays abroad. 

What next for the aviation industry?

Michael Gill contests the idea of flying as a luxury. He says, “Many, if not the majority, of frequent flyers are business people who need face-to-face contact with clients and staff, particularly over the coming months as business returns to normal.”

However, before Covid, air travellers rated around 50% of all flights as “unnecessary”. We have a chance now to rethink the way and the frequency at which we fly, and what we consider “normal”.

Although an aviation tax alone will not be enough to account for the environmental impact of flying, it could be a good start. At the same time, we need airlines to make meaningful commitments to reducing their emissions and invest in green flight technologies. We also need more transparency about the environmental impact of flying. And we need options to pick lower emissions flights and transparency about carbon offsetting initiatives where it is offered by the airline. 

Surely the pandemic has provided us with the chance to put these kinds of changes into practice now. We’d be foolish to miss the opportunity. 

Read next: Carbon offsetting your flights: A guide to how to do it right