Dossier Climate justice

Flight Exclusive

How to #flyless

asiatischer Zug

Air travel has a bad reputation these days. While some travellers declare their intention of #flyingless on Twitter, the travel industry is struggling to find reliable concepts for climate-friendly mobility. However, since 40 % of all trips in Germany are still booked via agencies, it would be a huge win for climate protection if most tour operators offered less trips by air. The idea is not far-fetched at all: Only 8.1 % of all trips made by German tourists are long-haul journeys. The most popular destinations abroad are Spain and Italy - spots that are all in medium distance and are accessible by alternative modes of transport on the ground. So how can tour operators get their guests to great holiday spots without bringing them to the airport first?

Climate-friendly transportation

The simplest way to avoid flights is to choose climate-friendly transportation. Travelling by alternative means of transport often takes longer. However, long journeys are likely to be more eventful and open up the opportunity to discover exciting places along the way. As an incentive, travel agencies can offer discounts to guests who do not arrive by plane. The most popular way to travel climate-friendly for German tourists is the railway, knows Petra Thomas. The Hamburg resident is CEO of „forum anders reisen“, an association of sustainable tour operators. „The train allows tourists to travel to countless destinations all across Europe with great flexibility. It therefore ranks on top of the popularity scale for environmental-friendly modes to travel. Moreover, more and more agencies use their own busses. And of course there are also agents offering bike tours starting directly from Germany. They don’t need any public transportation at all.“

Promoting sustainable travelling

With targeted campaigns, tour operators can promote sustainable travelling and at the same time inform their clients about their own ecological footprint. Even airlines are pursuing this strategy: The Dutch airline KLM recently called their guests to refrain from taking short-haul flights. Certainly, this is a carefully thought out strategy as these flights are the least profitable ones for airlines. Fewer passengers on short-distance connections and good press seem to pay off well for KLM. It is therefore not surprising that the German aviation sector currently thinks about avoiding domestic feeder flights as well.

For a while now, the debate about climate protection is considered a hot topic within the tourism sector. Yet, you can hardly find a tour operator implementing ambitious climate protection strategies that also consider transport except the members of forum anders reisen. „Air travel has been on our agenda for 20 years already. Our members are therefore very professional and show exemplary commitment in the field of avoiding flights. For a distance shorter than 800 km our members don’t offer air journeys at all and for medium- and long-distance destinations we have a set minimum for the number of nights to stay.“ Only one thing is new: Occasionally, clients ask to travel by train rather than by airplane. The ARD Germany poll from July 2019 confirms this trend: almost every fourth German wants to fly less in the future. “Such requests are still very rare. Despite Fridays for Future, the behavior of clients hasn’t changed remarkably so far“, states Petra Thomas. Yet, tour operators now have the chance to meet their clients good intentions by offering sustainable transport as part of the package.

Attending meetings without flying

This also applies to providers of business travel. In Germany, more than 21.600 business trips are undertaken every single hour – adding up to more than 180 million a year. The majority of domestic flights are taken for business purposes. Just like in the field of leisure, business travel agencies can chose short and efficient travel routes. Busses and trains are much more climate-friendly than cars or flights. Furthermore, travelling by train has the big advantage that the employees can work during their journey. Instead of a company car, the tech-enterprise SAP therefore provides a Bahncard 100 for all of their employees, a flat rate for train rides within Germany. Also, SAP has set-up an in-house carbon price on flights. Some companies already developed travel policies that only allow flights up to a certain distance. The Post AG for example does not allow its staff to cover distances under 400 km plane and the Evangelisches Werk für Diakonie und Entwicklung (Protestant Agency for Diakonie and Development), which also includes Bread for the World, uses rail travel whenever possible, avoiding flights below 700 km. For the sake of the environment – and the bank account – trips for short meetings should be avoided completely.  Around half of all enterprises already count on virtual meetings. Digitalization offers the chance to encounter business partners without physical appearance, for example via video conferencing or other applications.  

Inevitable air travel

Some destinations can only be reached by plane. If agencies want to maintain such spots in their programme nevertheless, they at least have to commit to reducing their footprint on long-distance trips as much as possible. The amount of emissions is not only determined by the mere distance, it also depends on the carrier. Tour operators and travelers can find extra efficient machines listed on the Atmosfair Airline Index. Also, non-stop flights are much more energy-efficient than stopovers. Long-haul journey with just one direct flight in an efficient aircraft, reduce carbon emissions by up to 1000 kg, which is equivalent to a car ride of 4000 km. Further benefits: Guests are travelling faster and more comfortably, their luggage will most likely not get lost on the way. The motto is: Rather one intensive long-haul trip every five years than one annual short trip. This way, many short- and medium-distance flights can be avoided and replaced by only one long flight.

Climate compensation remains an important part of the discussion. However, the concept of voluntary compensation by travellers rather than the tour operator itself has failed, admits Petra Thomas: “In 2003, when we started to introduce the model of voluntary compensation on the travel market together with atmosfair, we were quite sure to have found the solution for inevitable flights. But only a small number of travellers are willing to pay – we are talking about a single-digit percentage here.“ This is why one fourth of association members already started to include the costs for compensation directly in their package prices. „When clients don’t have the choice and compensation is a natural part of a sustainable trip, most don’t mind paying.“

Urgent need for political guidelines

Instead of leaving the decision about compensation to the consumer only, politicians must finally act. Petra Thomas demands action from the German capital as well: „Travellers are most likely to accept carbon prices, if the responsibility for emissions is shared. This is why the legislator has the duty to transparently and fairly allocate the costs for emissions, for example by air travel, to every emitter.” Germany can only achieve its climate goals, if emissions from air travel are subjected to close scrutiny. Subsidies and tax breaks at the expense of the climate must be abolished. At the same time, effective measures have to be implemented to change the behavior of consumers and entrepreneurs in favor of sustainable mobility. The first national climate protection law of the German government, which will be presented by the end of this year, will reveal, if the course has been set towards a transition to green mobility. 

Lea Thin is a Berlin-based geographer and journalist. In her work she focuses on issues around sustainability, gender, climate and development policy.