Are Frequent Flyer Programs Destroying The Environment, And Should They Be Banned?

There’s a debate, mostly in Europe, over whether to ban frequent flyer programs for the environment because:

  • Flying contributes to carbon emissions
  • Frequent flyer programs encourage flying
  • And it’s inequitable that some people get to fly and destroy the environment while others don’t
  • Some climate activists suggest that it’s time to scrap these schemes. “The very last thing we should be doing is reward frequent flyers,” says Herwig Schuster, a transport campaigner for Greenpeace. “Frequent flyer programmes are not fair to the climate and the majority of people worldwide who almost never fly. We cannot allow airlines to incentivise a lifestyle that’s destroying the planet while they receive major tax cuts and subsidies, and fill their pockets by selling more flight tickets.”

    This encapsulates the de-industrializing view, that we should stop economic activity to preserve the environment. That’s a wrong-headed approach for several reasons.

    • It’s never going to work, since poorer countries will never go along (they deserve to develop and become as rich as wealthier countries, why should they have to stop?)
    • Wealthy countries won’t go along either, even higher gas prices are a huge political problem
    • We need better technologies, that can provide benefits without harm to the environment and that can even remove harmful emissions from the environment (companies like United Airlines and Stripe are investing in carbon sequestration)
    • This particular proposal scapegoats something that barely moves the needle
    • And fails to recognize the important benefits of travel.

    Aviation accounts for 2.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s split roughly evenly between commercial air travel and cargo. All commercial air travel, then, accounts for 1.25% of emissions, so frequent flyer programs must be adding just a few bips.

    Frequent flyer programs are a rebate, that makes travel less costly and more affordable. That’s what activists want to eliminate. But it means that only the relatively wealthy should be able to afford to fly, exacerbating the very inequities that activists use in arguing for the ban. By the way Lufthansa’s CEO also wants to ban lower-cost travel with the environment as a fig leaf because it would put his low cost competitors out of business.

    Eliminating a rebate is just a price increase. Airlines, earning a higher rate of return from flying, will either:

    • Offer more flights, because flying is more profitable. That’s the exact opposite of climate activists would want.
    • Find other ways to rebate to customers to compete for their business. At one point, when prices were fixed (at an intentionally high level) by the Civil Aeronautics Board, the CAB discussed potential regulation of the thickness of onboard sandwiches, because carriers were finding a non-price way to compete for passenger business. This suggests banning frequent flyer programs would be unlikely to have an effect on the demand for travel.

    The drive to ban reward travel confuses the average and marginal effect of flying on the environment. Saver award travel has, by definition, the lowest environmental impact of any flying. Airlines make saver inventory available when they’re flying anyway and they believe a seat won’t sell.

    Most miles aren’t even earned from flying, and serve as a way of democratizing access to travel, which drives greater cultural understanding and even potentially reduces conflict across societies (which is good for the environment). Eliminating access to award travel, eliminating rebates on travel, is an elitist take which preserves access to the skies for the select few. While environmental discussions are important this is one the worst, least effective approaches to take.

    There are people who see the solution to pressing environmental challenges as eliminating the human activities that lead to those challenges. If we stopped flying, stopped using fossil fuels altogether, stopped transporting goods and services around the world we could contain our damage to the planet. That would mean the poorest places in the world are destined to stay that way, because it’s industrialization that increases emissions.

    If we’ve going to save the planet it’s going to have to be through better technology and human ingenuity. Airlines are already becoming more fuel efficient, with newer planes and engines. They’re investing in new fuels and technology. The environment is something to take seriously, but shutting down the world economy, and becoming a less well-connected world, isn’t the path towards improving the world.

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