Are We Experiencing Peak Air Travel?

More and more of us are experiencing flight shame due to the harmful effects flying has on the environment. We may see a huge dip in air travel.

We recently completed a large research project to better understand how the feelings of people in our group have been evolving. It shows that nearly 90% or more believe in sustainability practices, such as recycling, and that preserving the environment is important. More than a third would choose a sustainable clothing line or living community over non-sustainable. And, more than half disagreed that there is nothing wrong with the way we are currently consuming goods and that there is no need for more government environmental regulations on agriculture and manufacturing. This is a huge shift from a few years ago.

Flight Shame

One of the most interesting comments I heard at Global Wellness Summit in Singapore was by Thierry Malleret. He was commenting that he felt that a huge amount of the destination resorts being built today will end up as “stranded resources.” In other words, people would not be going to them. Why? Flight shame. This is the phenomenon of people who could fly, choosing not to fly because of the carbon emissions associated with flying. He cited a stat that one of the Scandinavian airlines, I recall it was SAS, was actually contracting in terms of passenger miles flown because of flight shame. He felt that the projections for how much people will travel in the future could be a huge downside surprise. Not in 20 years, or 10 years, but in 3 years. Humm, we don’t see many Hummers around today either.

We Can Control Our Own Behaviors

I have been pondering this for a few weeks, and I am inclined to cautiously agree. More and more I hear people talk about their personal responsibility in terms of global warming and the associated environmental impacts of our culture. At brunch last week with a couple of well-informed global travelers in our age group, there was an inevitable conversation about the fires in Australia and floods in Venice. The idea I heard, again and again, was that we may not be able to control what politicians do, but we can control our own behaviors — the butterfly effect.

Are We in a Period of Peak Flight?

Here in Los Angeles, our semi-functional airport LAX is under tremendous stress from the massive increase of flights over the last 30 years and the associated street traffic to service the passengers on those flights. The solution, as always, has been to expand the infrastructure. But I wonder if we are actually in a period of peak flight, and if we really need more infrastructure? Maybe yes, or maybe no.

There was a time 30 years ago when golf was exploding. Golf courses were everywhere, and people clamored to live next to them. Then a funny thing happened. Fewer people were playing golf, and thus fewer people were paying fees to maintain golf courses. Now there are thousands of bankrupt abandoned golf courses surrounded by none-too-happy homeowners. This may not be the best analogy as golf would seem to be more optional than travel, especially business travel. But even a small reduction in air travel would have an impact on the travel industry. 

Self-Taxing Carbon Consumption

We are seeing in our research a dramatic change in thinking around how people are making their buying decisions, with key drivers being: where does the thing come from, how is it made, and what happens to it after its use is over? This is a big shift from a few years ago and is something one would assume is a factor exclusively of the young.

There are now carbon offset programs where one can, in effect, self-tax one’s carbon consumption. The thinking is that the government won’t do it, so people are now doing it to themselves. I find this amazing and indicative of how critical people feel about the ecological situation we find ourselves in.

Swift Change

We are in a moment in time when tremendous change can happen in the blink of an eye. Attitudes around transgender, for instance, changed incredibly quickly. As more and more evidence is piling up around how bad climate change effects are becoming, I can absolutely see people choosing not to fly. Especially people in our group who are moving from concerned to genuinely alarmed at what they see happening — perhaps this is one of the consequences of believing one will be alive much longer. For myself, it is hard to look at the evidence I see and at the same time not take into account what I am doing in terms of being part of the problem or part of the solution. Flying has not been fun for decades and is increasingly dehumanizing almost to the point that they want to see how far they can push it before we say no mas. When one adds on top the awareness of its carbon effect, we may be in for a major shift.

I am not saying that flying is a huge contributor to global warming; it is a part, but a small part. We may not be able to control how much coal is burned in India, but we can control how often we get on a plane or drive our car. This is the point. People may decide that certain activities we take for granted are no longer OK. There was a time in the ’60s when people threw their trash out of car windows. Things do change, and sometimes very quickly. 

A New Future for Travel?

Thus, we have the competing desires to see more things in more cultures to expand our vision of what is possible in the world, which is wonderful, and the opposing thinking of: what is my activity causing? I can’t say I have any cogent answer to this. Travel is a tremendously positive activity in terms of us experiencing and empathizing with other peoples. My hope is that the mechanism that we use to make it happen — the airplane — will be improved in some way that will mitigate its carbon effect. Yes, there is tremendous irony in the fact this entire thread has been provoked by my flight to Singapore.






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David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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