Selfie on an aeroplane
Young couple pose for selfie on aeroplane

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New research finds nearly half the flights we take aren't important

New research evaluating the necessity of air travel indicates that as many as half of flights may be considered to lack importance to the travellers themselves, according to a study published by the Journal of Air Transport Management.

Aviation is increasingly in conflict with societal goals to limit climate change and challenges related to air pollution, noise and infrastructure expansion, with a growing tension between desirable consumption patterns and climate concerns. This pressure has recently been illustrated through the rise of the ‘flygskam’ (flight-shaming) movement in Europe and criticisms of high profile figures who continue to use private jets despite being vocal advocates for mitigating climate change.

Dr Debbie Hopkins, Associate Professor in Human Geography at Oxford University, said: ‘The climate emergency demands that we do something about rising volumes of air travel. Yet increasing numbers are about some people travelling more rather than more people travelling by air. Our research shows that much of this travel has little importance to the traveller, and it is this type of travel that we must seek to rapidly reduce, potentially by way of a frequent flyer tax.’

A team of researchers – Professor Stefan Gössling from Lund University, Dr Paul Hanna and Professor Scott Cohen from the University of Surrey, Professor James Higham from the University of Otago and Dr Debbie Hopkins from the University of Oxford – examined the perceived necessity and importance of flight from individual and societal perspectives, while considering moral and economic viewpoints.

Focusing on frequent flyers – because research suggests a small number of highly frequent flyers account for a large share of total global air travel – the study draws on data from a group of international students at Lund University who collectively recalled 587 flights that covered a total distance of 2.19 million kilometres, or an average of 75,413 km per student, over a six-year period (2012-2017).

The students flew for a wide range of reasons, considering 37% of their flights ‘very important’ and 21% ‘important’. Another 21% of flights were judged as neither important nor unimportant, while 13% had ‘limited importance’ and 8% had ‘no importance at all’.  As such, the results indicate that one in five flights (21%) may be considered redundant. Furthermore, the most popular motive for travel was ‘leisure’ at 42%. The results for this category alone show that 48% of these leisure flights were considered of limited value by the flyers themselves.

Another important insight emerging from this study is that much air travel is induced by its low cost, however flying for educational reasons and for social purposes (such as visiting friends and relatives or ‘love miles’) is likely to be relatively price inelastic and to endure even while many other flights may ‘disappear’ in the context of stronger policies to curb aviation demand.

Professor Stefan Gössling said: “We asked active air travellers rigorous questions about the necessity of air travel and our findings suggests that in order to reduce air travel-related emissions, immediate steps should be taken to reduce superfluous air travel which is deemed by the traveller to be unnecessary. To this end, ensuring that the cost of flights include the environmental costs of flying should be an important and immediate priority.”

Read the full paper: 'Can we fly less? Evaluating the ‘necessity’ of air travel' in the Journal of Air Transport Management.