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Environmental Groups Seem To Misunderstand Why Frequent Flyers Fly.

Posted on 1st April 2021

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I recently read an interesting article on the BBC, although it raises more questions than it answers.

Statistics show that a small number of frequent flyers do most of the flying:

  • In the UK, 70% of flights are made by 15% of the population, with 57% not flying abroad at all;
  • In the US, just 12% of people take two-thirds of flights;
  • In Canada: 22% of the population takes 73% of flights;
  • In the Netherlands: 8% of people takes 42% of flights;
  • In China: 5% of households takes 40% of flights;
  • In India: 1% of households takes 45% of flights;
  • In Indonesia: 3% of households takes 56% of flights.

Environmental groups are pushing for these frequent flyers to be penalised by higher taxes, and for frequent-flyer schemes to be cancelled. What is not clear is whether this is a simple proportional tax, or tax at at increasing rate as you fly more.

Although I agree with the principle that the polluter pays, and the current system means that everyone is penalised (by reduced quality of life) by the pollution of the few, air travel is already taxed. I do not see a need for a new tax, if the necessary incentives/disincentives can be achieved with adjustments to an existing tax.

In addition, the main problem with environmental taxes like those being proposed is that the governments levying these taxes are not constrained to spend the revenue thus raised on environmental programmes. Huge revenue is raised annually from fossil fuel production, but not a single nation is spending the this revenue on renewable energy sources, environmental clean up and energy efficient transport infrastructure.

Also, the environmental groups do not seem to understand why people fly. I have at times been a frequent flyer, having had to travel for work (i.e. not a matter of personal choice). If people flying for work are taxed more for their flights, they will, of course, pass these taxation penalties on to their employers; this will incentivise employers to send their staff on flights less often, but only slightly so, since the flight costs are usually a small part of the cost of a business trip (staff time is usually the largest cost).

There are, of course, travellers who mainly travel for pleasure. If taxation increases the costs of their flights, and if cost is an issue for them (which is often not true), they will travel less often, but the overall reduction in air travel this causes is not likely to be significant.

Someone needs to do a proper analysis of the impact of additional taxation on air travel: a modelling study which includes the number of various different types of air traveller and the cost sensitivity of their decisions to fly. Only then will we have an idea of whether the proposed additional taxation will work. Anything less than such a study is just propaganda!