How much of a threat does ‘flight shame’ pose to airlines?

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How much of a threat does ‘flight shame’ pose to airlines?

A new threat to aviation has emerged in recent months in the shape of ‘flygskam’, jeopardising growth in the industry and causing a significant headache for airlines around the world.

Flygskam – or ‘flight shame’ – first rose to prominence in Sweden in late-2017 when a number of the country’s celebrities vowed to give up air travel for environmental reasons. The movement seeks to evoke feelings of embarrassment among everyday flyers, encouraging them to also stop travelling by plane and instead consider greener alternatives such as trains and boats.

The work of Greta Thunberg and other high-profile environmental activists is starting to have an effect on travel trends – at least in the western world. 21% of people in the US, UK, Germany and France reduced the number of flights they took in the last year*, while a survey in June found that 37% of people in Sweden were choosing to travel by rail rather than air – up from just 20% in early-2018**.

Greta for President picket sign

What does the future of flight shame hold?

It’s no surprise that the origins of flight shame lie in Sweden. The country has a long history of climate awareness; remarkably, less than 1% of its waste is sent to landfill.

It’s also common for Swedes to take several weeks to holiday during the summer, affording them the time required to make longer journeys by rail or sea. Plus, it’s worth considering that other forms of travel are more affordable in Sweden than in many western countries.

Evidence suggests the flight shame movement is not set to diminish.

69% of Brits recently said they wanted urgent climate action to be taken, while 58% claimed they now talk more about the environment than they did five years ago.

But in many parts of the world flying shows no sign of losing its position as the optimum mode of travel. Factors that continue to make air travel the number one choice include:

  • Time: A flight from Stockholm to Paris typically takes about 120 minutes, while the same journey by rail can last up to 24 hours.
  • Cost: A study earlier this year found the cost of taking the train in the UK can be up to 18 times more expensive per mile than flying.
  • Practicality: While journeys by rail and sea are appealing to some travellers, they are often impractical for others, including families with young children and business travellers on a tight schedule.

Looking ahead, some industry observers believe flight shame is a trend that will struggle to make an impact outside Europe.

Airline expert Seth Kaplan commented: “One thing that’s different in Europe is that rail is a viable alternative today; for a lot of people, that’s not the case in the US. A reason why you’re unlikely to see US airlines doing this in any kind of big way is that in the US, what’s the alternative?”

“In most parts of the world, the only way to have less of an environmental impact than flying is not to travel.”

What does flight shame mean for airlines?

Aside from the potential negative effect on reputation - which we’ve previously shown can have a significant long-term impact on revenue - airlines can expect much slower growth as a result of the Flight Shame Movement. In May, Swiss bank UBS predicted the number of flights in the US would rise by 2.1% a year, but it has since updated that figure to just 1.3%. Similarly, Airbus believes expansion in the EU will total 3%, but the latest figure from UBS is just 1.5%. 

Overall, IATA’s latest research shows the total number of passenger journeys will double from around four billion in 2017 to 8.2 billion by 2037.

But if flight shame continues to gather momentum, this level of growth could be under threat and airlines may have to revise forecasted passenger numbers – and, ultimately, profit – down.

What can airlines do about it?

While it’s a difficult time for the aviation industry, the climate change crisis is a very real issue that none of us can ignore. While growth is desirable, corporate social responsibility is something most businesses take very seriously. And airlines around the world are already taking significant steps to share their commitment to greener operations and minimise their carbon footprint:

  • International Airlines Group – which includes major carriers including British Airways and Iberia – recently became the first airline group to commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in line with the United Nations’ guidelines.
  • In July, KLM invited industry stakeholders to join it in working together to pursue a more sustainable future for the aviation sector. It launched the Fly Responsibly campaign, allowing rival airlines without a carbon offsetting scheme to use its own by accessing its booking system. KLM is also recommending customers use the service to compensate for their flight emissions.
  • United Airlines has improved its fuel efficiency by over 30% since 1994 and has started using biofuels to power its modern, eco-friendly planes.
  • Virgin has won several awards for its environmentally-friendly operations, which include funding biofuel research and reducing carbon emissions. 

The full impact of the Flight Shame Movement on the aviation industry will not be known for some time, but socially responsible and forward-thinking airlines are already taking action to limit their vulnerability to any downturn and enhance customer perception of their brand.

Flight Shame is not the only threat to airlines, with many carriers currently facing up to tough market conditions and reduced budgets. Find out more in our blog: Has your budget been cut? 5 macro factors putting pressure on the aviation industry

* UBS Bank 2019
** Swedish Railways
*** Skyscanner 2019


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