Is this the end of short-haul flights? How sustainability is shaping the future of air travel

From fuel levies to a ban on short-haul flights, sustainability shake-ups in the airline industry are set to change where you can travel by plane — and how much it will cost.

Preparation of airplane before departure.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Sarah Barrell
Published 17 Mar 2022, 10:45 GMT

This January, Air France became the first airline to introduce biofuel surcharges, with other airlines looking set to follow suit. Furthermore, a recent ruling in the carrier’s home country now requires all aircraft refuelling within France to do so using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is far more expensive than traditional aviation fuel, meaning potentially higher airfares for passengers as a result. Meanwhile, in a bid to cut carbon emissions, governments across Europe are beginning to rethink their short-haul flight networks. We look at what all of this might mean for passengers.
What’s happening with aviation fuel?
As of 1 January 2022, France requires the fuel mix of all airlines refuelling in the country to be at least 1% SAF, with this figure set to increase to 2% in 2025 and 5% in 2030. The EU is likely to introduce a blending mandate in 2025 that will help the airline industry in its stated aim of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
In the meantime, Sweden has announced plans to become the first country to charge a landing and take-off fee for older, less fuel-efficient aircraft. How this cost will be passed on to passengers, however, remains to be seen.

Will passengers be affected?
Air France’s announcement will mean that passengers pay between €1-12 (85p-£10), depending on flight duration and cabin class. Partner airline KLM and subsidiary Transavia will also implement surcharges in efforts to offset the more expensive SAF.
All of this is driven by costs: SAF is between four and eight times more expensive than traditional fuel (which accounts for up to 30% of an airline’s costs) but allows airlines to cut carbon emissions by 75% compared with conventional kerosene jet fuel. Air France has said it expects the costs of SAF — largely made from used cooking oil as well as agricultural waste — to drop as more European countries start producing it. 
And how will this affect flight routes?
As part of efforts to reduce airline carbon emissions, a growing number of European nations are proposing to follow France’s example: last April, the country banned short-haul domestic flights on routes where comparable train journeys of up to two-and-a-half hours exist. Services affected included flights between Paris and Nantes, and Lyon and Bordeaux. Similar bans are being considered in Spain, Germany and Scandinavian countries.
During the pandemic, Austrian Airlines secured a government bailout on condition it ditched domestic flights where a train journey of under three hours was available. 
Will this be enough to cut emissions? 
For many environmentalists, these bans don’t go far enough. According to last October’s Greenpeace report Get On Track, the French ban will result in less than a 1% reduction in carbon emissions for the country’s air transport sector. John Hyland, the EU spokesperson for the group said: “The EU and European governments, France included, should ban all short flights when passengers can use less polluting transport like rail or bus.” A third of the busiest short-haul flights in Europe have train alternatives of under six hours, according to research by think tank OBC Transeuropa, which has called on European governments to ban short-haul flights in favour of accessible rail travel for all.

And what does this mean for long-haul flights?
Banning short-haul flights won’t resolve aviation’s bigger problem: long haul. According to European air traffic management body Eurocontrol, long-haul flights account for 6% of all the continent’s flights but produced a disproportionate 52% of emissions — making the implementation of biofuel an increasingly burning issue.

Biofuel facts

What's it made of? SAF is largely composed of used cooking oil and forestry and agricultural waste.

Cutting carbon: SAF emits 75% less carbon than traditional aviation fuel.

Concerns: The EU Court of Auditors has voiced concerns over imported ‘virgin’ oils (including palm oil) being passed off as ‘used’, fearing deforestation. It’s called for tougher regulation and monitoring.

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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