Lost lessons, hazy skies: The peril of neglecting pandemic wisdom in air travel
COVID-19 showed that rapid reductions in flying are feasible, broadly acceptable, and supported when addressing a crisis.
Earlier this week, my Google Pixel device again sent me down memory lane thanks to its customary 'photo memories from the past' notification.
This time, I was presented with images from four years ago – precisely on February 1st, 2020. This transported me back to a period when the global community was awakening to the emerging menace of the COVID-19 virus.
What were you doing that February? Among other things, I was getting ready for my regular attendance at SXSW in Austin, Texas, scheduled for March. While harbouring mild concerns about this new disease, I didn’t overthink it.
Then, trade events started being cancelled very quickly, beginning with ITB in Berlin. Meanwhile, Austin's Mayor stopped SXSW only a week before its commencement.
Grounding Global Skies: The Unforgettable Impact of COVID-19
By April 2020, international air travel had effectively ground to a halt, experiencing a staggering 97% decline in the UK compared to the preceding year.
What are the lessons from COVID-19? People can stop flying quite quickly, most won’t be inconvenienced by this, and most will also support such measures if they are seen to combat a growing and imminent crisis.
In particular, those lessons challenge prevailing assertions by industry figures like Michael O’Leary, advocating the primacy of affordable flights despite escalating climate concerns.
At the close of the past year, the Ryanair executive asserted that consumers would consistently prioritise budget flights over environmental apprehensions. This was followed by the contention that aviation was unjustly singled out, using the 'it's only 2%!' argument that you still hear quite a lot.
In fact, the recent pandemic experience demonstrates that air travel consistently emerges as a dispensable option for many when confronted with a series of lifestyle choices.
This comes as even in the Global North, a relatively small proportion of frequent flyers account for the most flights. For the rest, flying is a nice to have, not a must-have - assuming they fly at all.
As a result, Governments could implement air travel restrictions as a tangible response to public concerns without causing inconvenience for the majority.
To support this argument, let's look at some evidence from the height of the pandemic:
From 2020 to 2021, surveys in the UK revealed overwhelming support (nearly 9/10 respondents) for mandatory quarantines for international arrivals.
Meanwhile, in early 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a request for Canadians to “cancel all travel plans.” Trudeau's language was telling – “the bad choices of a few won’t be allowed to put others in danger.” In this narrative, going abroad was reckless, selfish, and a ‘bad choice.’ At the time, I wrote that this was “the new flight shaming.”
Trudeau was in tune with the vast majority of Canadians, with 87% saying that Canada should ban international air travel until such time as cases went down.
Charting a Sustainable Course: Consumer Attitudes Post-Pandemic
Could we witness consumers endorsing climate change-related flight restrictions akin to supporting COVID-related bans? Perhaps.
An academic study in Norway by Steffen Kallbekken and Håkon Sælen sought to determine if backing for COVID-19 travel restrictions would extend to comparable climate-related measures.
Acknowledging Norway's climate-aware populace, the authors concluded that:
“Our results thus suggest that relatively coercive measures targeting leisure air travel to limit GHG emissions could be supported by a majority of the public if they were perceived as environmentally effective and if the threat from climate change were seen as more imminent.”
As a result, as the impacts of global warming intensify, a substantial portion of the public may be inclined to advocate for air travel restrictions.
Another UK study ("Willingness to reduce travel consumption to support a low-carbon transition beyond COVID-19") revealed that younger, environmentally conscious consumers favoured climate-related air travel restrictions.
Particularly, those who agreed with the statement' climate change is at least as serious as COVID-19' were more inclined to support air travel reductions.
While older consumers were less supportive, Generation Z represents the potential frequent flyers of the future – or not, as the case may be.
However, a more telling study conducted by NATS, overseeing the UK’s air traffic control systems, revealed that:
54% of the public, although a decrease from 2020, affirmed that reducing emissions should be a top priority for the aviation industry.
Environmental concerns remain pivotal for most respondents, including noise reduction (28%).
Simultaneously, 38% either strongly or somewhat endorse restricting the number of flights individuals can take, compared to 33% in opposition.
Returning to the point that most consumers infrequently fly, the proportion rises when addressing frequent flyer levies – taxing those who fly more.
Here, NATS found that 47% would at least partially support such a policy, contrasting with 29% in opposition.
In other words: taxing the frequent flyer journeying across the Atlantic 20 times a year in business class is acceptable, but preserve my annual Mediterranean holiday.
Meanwhile, when confronted with a spectrum of lifestyle choices and asked which they would give up to reduce their climate footprint, relinquishing air travel was the option consumers found most feasible, surpassing purchasing a new car, adopting a vegetarian diet, streaming TV, or owning a pet.
Though NATS showed that environmental apprehensions regarding air travel had diminished since 2020, as the realities of climate change become more tangible, these figures could quickly surge once again.
As Marco Troncone, Rome Airports' chief, stated last year:
“Chances are high that in five years' time, the level of attention [on polluting industries] will be higher than exists now. And at that time, there will be zero tolerance. If there is tolerance, it will only be given in exchange for a promise [to cut emissions], which must be credible.”
When that time arrives, consumers are likely to rally behind global-warming-related measures, with those that have the most negligible impact on their daily lives receiving the most support. Air travel epitomises such a measure.
My thanks to Dr Dana Shoukroun from Oneiros, as this article was prompted by a recent conversation, where we both felt that the industry was forgetting some of the fundamental lessons from the pandemic.
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