Why Are Flights Really So Cheap?

We all know that flying emits huge amounts of CO2. And covering the same distance by bus or train is always far more expensive. In fact, sometimes even getting to the airport by train can cost you twice as much as the flight itself. So why is air travel really so cheap?

Author Sarah-Indra Jungblut:

Translation Sarah-Indra Jungblut, 08.28.17

During climate negotiations, the issue of how best to cut CO2 emissions – as quickly and effectively as possible – is key. City planners are coming up with ways to make traffic as sustainable as possible, countless startups are working to make electric vehicles more accessible to the general public than ever, and cycling is being pushed as the greenest form of transportation – but air travel remains unaffected, in fact, it barely gets a mention.

When it comes to price, air travel simply can’t be beaten, and airlines around the world are serving more and more passengers every year. And all that, despite the fact that it’s common knowledge that flying emits massive amounts of CO2. 

If the situation continues to develop as it is, air travel is estimated to be responsible for 22% of global warming by 2050 (pdf).

But if it’s so damaging and resource-intensive, why is air travel so cheap? There are several reasons: 

  • Airlines still don’t pay any tax on kerosene.
  • Within the EU, plane tickets are free from VAT (unlike train tickets in certain countries in the EU)
  • Airlines receive state support – Airbus and Boeing, for example, have been able to benefit from EU and US state aid for years, while many airlines are simply government owned.
  • Flight operators benefit from subsidies when building and operating airports – subsidies provided by local authorities’ tax revenue.

Ultimately what all of that means is that on an international level there are no regulations that seek to restrict the aviation industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. Quite the opposite: air travel is heavily funded by taxpayers’ money. For more information about the logistics behind the issue of planes vs. trains, check out this article from 10:10

It’s clear to see where changes need to be made – get rid of tax breaks and subsidies and airlines will have to come up with more realistic prices. Sure, that means flights would be more expensive, but then airlines and alternative travel options, such as train companies, would at least be on a level playing field.

If we are to achieve completely CO2-free, or at least less damaging travel, governments will have to start supporting train (and bus) travel with subsidies, while at the same time switching both over to 100% green energy. There’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s not impossible, and surely the dramatic decrease in emissions will be enough of a reward for everyone.

And what can you do to help? Of course, you can try to avoid unnecessary plane travel whenever possible, and when you do end up flying for whatever reason, you can work out your emissions and offset them with an organisation such as atmosfair.

This article is a translation by Marisa Pettit of the original which appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

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