Hot topic: should we tax frequent flyers?

The climate crisis is reaching tipping point and emissions targets are far from being met, yet air travel is still predicted to grow. Something has to give — but should this come in the shape of a frequent flyer levy?

By Simon Usborne
Published 26 Oct 2021, 15:00 BST
In the UK, 70% of flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population, according ...

In the UK, 70% of flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population, according to a recent report produced for the climate campaign group Possible.

Photograph by Getty Images

While aviation takes off again as the pandemic’s travel restrictions ease, the debate intensifies over how to reconcile the industry with a net-zero world. To meet targets for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions (by 2050 in the UK) the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government on climate policy, says the UK must slow aviation growth sufficiently so that passenger numbers don’t rise more than 25% above 2018 levels. All forecasts, however, predict much higher figures. 

How do you make people fly (a lot) less? 
Broadly speaking, there are two approaches: you either restrict supply — by, for example, blocking  the construction of new runways or, as France has done, banning domestic routes with good rail links — or you restrict demand by making flying more expensive through taxation. Or you do both.

What would this do to airfares?
Either of these approaches would result in higher ticket prices, which poses a cultural quandary. Decades of evolution in aviation have democratised travel, bringing foreign trips within reach of people whose parents, say, couldn’t have dreamed of jetting off abroad. But the age of the budget airline resulted in such low prices that winding back expectations and opportunities will be difficult and potentially unfair. We risk reviving an elitist age in which jet travel was the preserve of the rich, while also disrupting business models and employment across the globe that have evolved in response to low-cost flying.

How would a frequent flyer levy work?
A small minority of frequent flyers take the majority of flights in almost all countries with high aviation emissions. In the UK, 70% of flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population, according to a recent report produced for the climate campaign group Possible. In the US, two-thirds of flights are taken by 12% of people, while in India 45% of flights are taken by just 1% of households.

“While the poorest communities are already suffering the impacts of a warming climate, the benefits of high-carbon lifestyles are enjoyed only by the few,” Alethea Warrington, Possible campaigns manager, told BBC News in March. Greenpeace, which supports a frequent flyer levy, also pointed out the compounding effects of air miles, which reward passengers for travelling by plane more frequently.

The New Economics Foundation think tank is among those groups arguing for a sliding tax. A frequent flyer levy would replace the blanket Air Passenger Duty, which currently adds £13 to the cost of a short-haul economy ticket and £78 to a long-haul economy ticket. The levy would only kick in when an individual takes their second flight of the year, reducing the cost of travel for those taking just one annual trip involving flights. The think tank’s modelling indicates that, on average, the lowest-income 20% of the population would pay £7.75 a year on a frequent flyer levy, while the highest-income 20% would pay £165.85 per year.

Is there a case against it?
While a blanket duty is simplistic and arguably unfair, a frequent flyer levy could suffer for its relative complexity. The UK government has welcomed proposals for change while it considers its own response to the challenge of making aviation fit climate targets, but it has poured cold water on the idea of such a levy. Any system could be difficult to administer and open to abuse. Would we distinguish between pleasure and business travel? Would we penalise people visiting far-flung families? There would also be potential data and privacy concerns in tracking us across the skies. If a frequent flyer levy does become a solution, it may not get permission to land any time soon.

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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