Trains, lanes & automobiles: is it time to embrace a no-fly future?

Whether you’re a passionate trekker, a rail romantic or merely suffering from the rise of flygskam (flight shame), there are plenty of reasons to look beyond the skies. But where do you start?

By Tom Chesshyre
Published 22 Nov 2019, 06:00 GMT
Porthole on a ship showcasing striking view of cliffs.
Porthole on a ship showcasing striking view of cliffs.
Photograph by Getty Images

In his 1979 book The Old Patagonian Express, the US travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux pinpoints the best thing that can possibly happen on a flight: nothing.

No delays, no crashes, no throwing up during turbulence. He writes that the air traveller ‘crawls into a carpeted tube that is reeking of disinfectant; he is strapped in to go home, or away. Time is truncated, or in any case warped: he leaves in one time zone and emerges in another.’

Theroux doesn’t pull any punches. But his key point stands firm — that with flying, the focus is almost all on arrival. Where’s the fun in that? And, as more and more of us are asking, is this a responsible way to travel?

The age of mass tourism arrived on jet planes in the 1960s and since then we’ve become addicted to taking to the sky. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) claims aeroplanes globally carried more than 4.3 billion passengers in 2018, on 38 million departures, with over half the world’s 1.4 billion tourists who crossed international borders doing so by air. The ICAO forecasts this figure to creep up by about 3.5% a year. By 2037, it expects eight billion of us to be flying annually (bear in mind that the current world population is 7.53 billion).

Extraordinary statistics — and extraordinary times, especially when you consider that manned flights in powered aircraft have only been occurring for a little over a century. The Wright brothers’ first such flight was made at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December 1903. Distance covered? 120ft. Journey time? Twelve seconds, with a hair-raisingly high-speed of 6.8mph.

During the next 116 years, air travel shaped world events in more ways than one: Spitfires and atomic bombers in the Second World War; flights to the Moon; fledgling mass tourism to the Med on Boeing 707s; journeys on Concorde at 1,354 miles an hour (from 1976-2003); the 1990s budget airline boom.

Now, travellers can hop on flights costing little more than the departure tax. Planes have turned into buses of the air — a major international business employing millions. Journeys to faraway spots can be purchased with a few taps on a phone; the internet has fuelled our obsession with flying, and made it easy, too. This is especially true for those with cash and time to spare. What Orville and Wilbur, with their flat caps and tweed suits, would’ve made of it all is anyone’s guess.

What environmentalists make of it, however, is another matter. It’s said that flights are now responsible for up to 5% of all human-induced CO2 emissions and 12% of all transport-related emissions. This amounts to 859 million tonnes of CO2 annually.

Motorbiking in Italy offers a unique way of experiencing the landscape.
Photograph by Getty Images

Yet even this doesn’t tell the full story. The German-based Institute for Atmospheric Physics recently found that ‘contrails’ — the innocuous-looking white trails left by planes — may themselves be responsible for more global warming than aircraft greenhouse gas emissions. Contrails create cirrus cloud that traps energy in the atmosphere. As yet, nobody is quite sure of the full effect.

Responding to concerns, airlines have ordered greener planes. EasyJet, for example, has even mooted the possibility of electric aircraft, citing an interest in Los Angeles-based Wright Electric, which has already invented a two-seater electric plane. Across the aviation industry, ‘hybrid’ planes using both conventional fuel and electricity are being considered; the first commercial planes could take-off within a decade. Meanwhile, passengers worried about their carbon footprint have taken matters into their own hands by contributing to off-setting schemes involving tree planting.

But while air travel has plenty of defenders, there’s little doubt that flying has lost the happy-go-lucky, glamorous shine of the Jet Age. In response, many people are now opting for no-fly breaks. There’s even a handy new Swedish term to cover it, flygskam, or ‘flight shame’. It seems for some that flying has become a dirty word.

Of course, the rise of no-fly travel isn’t all down to guilt about emissions. Travelling by train, and long-distance walking, for example, are two of the most pleasurable ways of getting about, as so many more of us are discovering. Yes, Theroux may have been over-egging it back in the Seventies, but he was ultimately onto something. The truth is that flying, especially with all the associated security checks, can be terribly dull.

So why not break free? If you’re not sure where to start, check out our round-up of no-fly adventures for 2020.

Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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