Let me start here with a very clear message: I think Greta Thunberg is wonderful, I firmly believe in the science behind climate change and I care passionately about curbing our human impact on the environment as quickly as possible, with the aim of keeping our temperature rise down. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the world is more extreme than ever, and change can’t happen soon enough. It’s imperative.
Now, let me instantly make myself a hypocrite by stating that in the last 10 days, I flew between New York and London twice (two round trips) and was also in Tel Aviv. I flew roughly 19,000 miles in 10 days, taking 6 flights, each of which was full. I could tell you that I offset my carbon emissions, or that I just had to be there, but Greta Thunberg wouldn’t accept this, and I don’t expect you to either.
I am a frequent flyer in the age of climate change. I am part of the problem, but at the same time, I also feel that attacking the airline industry is like attacking the people that make the paper lining for cigarettes, rather than the cigarette companies themselves.
As a child, the travel dream and the “travel bug” hit me hard. I was terminal, right from the start. I love seeing new places, cultures and ways of life and I believe that doing so really can, but not necessarily will, make you a better person. You must have open eyes, hearts and minds to actually soak a place or way of life in – just being there doesn’t count. Flying is the fastest way to get there, and I now fly all the time as part of my job – a full time travel blogger.
A world where the “least worst” is the criterion for “ok” isn’t one I would’ve chosen to live in, but since it is the world we do live in, I think it’s ridiculous to single out airlines as the new “they are the enemy” part of the climate change mission. Why? Our collective goals of making environmentally sustainable ways of travel are more directly linked to airline balance sheets than any other travel business.
If this was the case in other industries, climate initiatives would be far more successful. Yes, if politicians had half the financial benefits from climate change initiatives that airline executives have, we wouldn’t be anywhere near the crisis we’re still in. Here’s why: airline expenses are pretty simple…
- Fuel is the single greatest airline cost
- The heavier a plane, the more fuel it needs
- Catering, amenities and other things are expensive
Airlines, aerospace firms and fuel companies are devoting more time and energy to creating fuel efficient planes than anything else. Burning less fuel means spending less money on operating costs and there isn’t a CEO in the airline world who isn’t behind this. Creating pre order meals reduces food waste and also weight, which is yet another thing everyone can get behind. New planes such as the Airbus A350, or Boeing 787 Dreamliner burn an estimated 30% less fuel than previous models, and I personally seek out airlines which operate these planes.
But, let’s pivot to what I believe is the greatest near term crisis in travel, the one we really should be focusing on: the cruise industry. We’re talking about boats holding thousands upon thousands of people, which literally dump human waste in their trail, all into our beloved seas. They burn incredible amounts of fuel, and waste more than any business in travel.
The environmental impacts are grave, for example, a cruise ship burns up to 250 tonnes of heavy diesel fuel per day, in addition to more sulfur than the equivalent of several million cars, but the human impacts are worse. They’re ruining cities… today.
And before you say “this is classist”, look at cruise prices and look at flights, and accommodation options in the sharing economy. To say that a cruise is cheaper in 2019 is a complete fallacy. They’re simply not. I find more often cruises are more expensive, particularly since you generally need to fly to pick one up or return from one. Sure, you’re getting unlimited booze and food thrown in, but no one needs “unlimited booze”.
Take Santorini, a truly idyllic, “gotta see it to truly believe it” Greek island carved out of your wildest dreams. The island is home to roughly 15,000 locals, most of whom depend on tourism and the many industries which support tourism for income. During “the season”, four or more cruise ships will moor near Fira, the main port, and dump up to 12,000 cruise tourists onto the island, instantly doubling the population of a place meant for roughly half that number.
The problem: they don’t contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way…
Whereas most airline passengers stay on the island, which means eating on the island and paying a nightly accommodation tax, all of which supports local businesses and governments, these cruise passengers stuff their faces on board with “free” buffet and then come walk it off, take pictures and ransack the island. The average spend of a cruise passenger in Santorini? Under $5 per day. Yes, seriously – that’s a fact. Why eat local and discover new tastes when there’s free pasta on board? Eye roll, implied.
When I fly to Santorini, I pay for a hotel, which supports a local business. I eat, drink, tour and do other things, all of which support locally owned businesses. And yes, I do avoid chains wherever possible, I’m not daft. I most likely pay an overnight guest tax, or surcharge, which helps contribute to the infrastructure to better support visits like mine, too.
Basically: an airline passenger, by default, spend an exponential figure towards a local economy and the people who actually live in a destination, versus cruise passengers. Our climate is a concern we cannot ignore, and it may threaten our very existence one day, but industries like the cruise industry threaten entire cities, populations and the sustainability of regions around the world – today. Going back to the “least worst” argument, airlines are definitely the “least worst” of the two and I firmly believe that airlines are doing more to curb their waste than any other travel industry.
Again, this not because it’s out of the goodness of their hearts, necessarily, but because it’s good for business and it’s actually fundamental to creating profit in a time when you can fly from New York to Barcelona for under $250 round trip, and sometimes even lower in the other direction. Heck, you can fly to China for under $300 sometimes…
Feudally defending myself, I can’t help but laugh at the criticism I get from people who don’t fly, yet drive f**king Range Rovers, or leave their lights on all day. I live in a modest home, I don’t own a car, I recycle, I try to minimise the transportation costs of my food by buying locally farmed produce and meat and I don’t litter, or smoke. I use a metal water bottle, and I have a recycled coffee cup, made from recycled materials. Does that make me ok, and absolve me of my flying sins? Of course not.
I will keep flying because the world is incredible and seeing it makes me care more every day about protecting it. We’re not far off of electric engines on planes, and airlines are reducing thousands of tonnes in plastic waste with new initiatives each year. When you have something; or someone you must see, you will get on a plane too. When you do, my suggestion would be to start to care more about…
- Which planes – learn which airlines offer younger, more fuel efficient fleets. It’s better for the environment and they are better for your body too. Better air pressure, less noise.
- Which airlines – airlines all compete on price, so if prices are uniformly low, pick the airline with the best climate and waste reduction initiatives.
- Offsetting your footprint – a friend recommended Offset.earth and I find their initiatives to be exemplary, simple and meaningful. Please consider supporting this cause. Not many bad things come from planting trees…
I want to live in a world that my future children may be able to enjoy and breath the air in safely. But I also want them to see the parts of the world that make you appreciate just how special and unique each part is. Flying will forever be the most logical and efficient way of doing so, and since the needs of the environment are so uniquely intertwined with the needs of the travel businesses dominating the skies, I think those who are singling out frequent flyers as the root of all climate evil have misplaced their anger.