When thinking about the wealth gap and air travel, we tend to think of jet-setting millionaires in private planes or, more recently, Branson and Bezos popping zero-gravity champagne in the billionaire space race.

However, flight inequality is a growing problem for the planet on a much more common ground: frequent fliers.

A study from Global Environmental Change estimates that one per cent of the global population accounted for nearly half of all commercial flight emissions in 2018. 

One popular proposal is a frequent flyer tax, intended to curb demand for flights rather than directly limit capacity.

British thinktank the New Economics Foundation estimates that in the UK alone, 15 per cent of the population is responsible for 70 per cent of commercial air travel while half the population does not fly at all.

This is not an outlier. In most high income countries, more than half the population does not fly in a given year, with that disparity growing higher as income decreases.

Oftentimes these trips aren’t even strictly necessary. A survey of students, a common frequent flier, found that one in five flights were redundant and had little to no importance to those flying.

So where are all of these people flying? A large chunk of the time, the flights are domestic or short haul. 

Approximately 40 per cent of all passenger aviation emissions in 2018 were generated by domestic flights. One third of emissions came solely from flights under 1500 kilometres. 

Domestic and short haul flights have a larger carbon footprint than long haul flights due to emissions heavy takeoff and landing cycles.

While the aviation industry plots its post-COVID return, it might be time to rethink how and where we fly.

One popular proposal is a frequent flyer tax, intended to curb demand for flights rather than directly limit capacity.

The first flight would see little to no tax, increasing incrementally with each additional flight. This would take some of the burden off those looking for a once-a-year family holiday while discouraging excessive flights.

The UK’s Climate Change Committee even recommended implementing the frequent flyer levy in a letter to the government as a way to limit aviation emissions, which threaten to become the country’s biggest emissions source by 2050.

There is of course the most direct method to creating a flight cap: cutting excessive flights.

In April, French lawmakers approved a measure banning domestic flights on routes that can be traveled within two and a half hours by train. The move is expected to slash 12 per cent of the nation’s domestic flights.

The legislation was watered down from the proposed four hour travel time after French airlines protested, many of them still hurting from pandemic flight restrictions. The bill also excludes connecting flights.

There are objections from both sides of the political spectrum with some claiming the bill would hurt French airlines and environmental advocates arguing it is a purely symbolic gesture.

Many consumers are actively choosing alternatives to flight, such as rail, out of both “flight shame” and sometimes convenience.

Rail tickets can often be cheaper and even comparable on overall travel time without the struggle of getting to and from isolated airports, standing in tedious security lines, waiting the recommended hour in the terminal and groaning when the flight gets delayed.

So the next time you’re sitting in an airport cursing that your hour-long flight has now exceeded the cost and time of an eight hour bus, consider ditching those frequent flyer miles for a train ticket. The planet — and your wallet — will thank you.

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