Banning short-haul flights is a first step, but it’s not enough

After Austria and France banned short-haul flights, stakeholders on all sides of the environmental and industrial spectrum are debating whether banning short-haul flights is really the way forward for the EU to meet its net-zero goals. Ilaria Grasso Macola reports.

The French Government announced in April its decision to ban short-haul internal flights to reduce France’s CO2 emissions.

The move – which will affect those routes where a train journey of less than two hours and 30 minutes could be provided as an alternative – was applauded by environmental groups but criticised by the industry.
“Short-haul flights are extremely polluting and should be banned where an alternative connection exists, but the proposed French travel time limit of 2.5 hours leaves a huge number of short flights still in operation, including Paris-Marseille – one of the top three domestic flights in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” Greenpeace EU spokesperson John Hyland told Airport Technology

“The EU and European governments, France included, should ban all domestic and cross-border short flights when passengers can use less polluting transport like rail or bus.”

As France follows the example of Austria in banning short-haul flights, should the EU act collectively and make travelling short distances by plane a thing of the past?

EU supports reduction of short-haul flights

There is a lot of support at the European Union (EU) level to reduce and eventually eliminate the number of short-haul flights. 

According to a European Commission spokesperson, the EU is supporting any measure that promotes the greening of aviation and transport. “The Commission supports these measures to promote increase reliance of lower carbon transport options especially on short routes, provided they are compatible with the internal market rules,” says the spokesperson. 

The bloc is implementing a series of initiatives on short-haul flights, including creating the conditions for transport operators to offer passengers carbon-neutral alternatives and doubling high-speed rail availability by 2030, tripling it by 2050.

As well as investing in high-speed rail connections, the Commission will also explore different modes of more sustainable transportation.

“The Commission will work towards an overall system where EU investments, state aid, rules for capacity allocation and public service obligations are geared towards fulfilling mobility needs and looking at different mobility options, rather than assessing mobility within the confines of one transport mode,” adds the spokesperson.

'Counterproductive move': criticism from ACI

According to Airport Council International (ACI) Europe, banning short-haul flights could be counterproductive as decarbonisation of European aviation will start with short-haul flights.

“New aircraft technologies, in particular hydrogen and electrified aircraft operations, are first likely to materialise on short-haul flights therefore banning short-haul flights would be counterproductive in developing these new technologies particularly from a decarbonisation perspective,” says a spokesperson. 

“Furthermore, flights below 500km account for only 4.3% of aircraft emissions in Europe, so a ban would not solve aviation’s climate problem.”

Short-haul flights, representing 30% of total flights, produce only 4.3% of emissions.

According to European air traffic management body Eurocontrol, flights longer than 4,000km – which in 2020 represented 6% of total departing flights – produce more than half of Europe’s total aviation CO2. Short-haul flights, representing 30% of total flights, produce only 4.3% of emissions.

ACI also argues that the environmental impacts of building new railway routes should not be understated, especially when it comes to noise pollution. 

“Already today, according to data from the European Environment Agency, the number of people exposed to high levels of noise is five times higher for rail than for air transport, with an almost 13 times higher exposure to railway noise specifically at night times,” adds the spokesperson.

Banning short-haul flights is not enough

Given the relatively small impact the banning of short-haul flights could have on the environment, the railway industry and environmental groups are asking France, and consequently Europe, to do much more.

European lobby group ALLRAIL is currently pushing for cross-border railway journeys and for the banning of flights that can be served by night trains. “France has made the right first step,” said ALLRAIL president Dr Erich Foster. “Now it’s time for European stakeholders to grasp the opportunity and become more ambitious. As US President Joe Biden reminded us all last week: we are now in a ‘decisive decade’ for tackling climate change.”

Although a ban on short-haul flights would offer governments the opportunity to invest in more sustainable modes of transport such as rail, tougher measures against long-haul flights are what the environment really needs, says European campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E). 

“The only thing that we say is that [banning short-haul flights] is only addressing the tip of the iceberg of aviation's climate problem, because the biggest chunk of emissions is linked to long-haul flights,” says T&E aviation manager Jo Dardenne. “You have a handful of flights that are long haul that need to be addressed, and the way of addressing those is to fundamentally stop burning kerosene.”

Governments shouldn't forget that we need to pursue every policy to reduce emissions, but you have to focus also on where the biggest chunk of emissions lie, which is long-haul.

Imposing a blending mandate to replace kerosene with sustainable fuels and putting a price on emissions to level up the cost difference between kerosene and cleaner fuels is the way forward, says Dardenne.

“Governments shouldn't forget that we need to pursue every policy to reduce emissions, but you have to focus also on where the biggest chunk of emissions lie, which is long-haul.”

At the EU level, Dardenne argues, there are already policies in place to counter aviation emissions, but they are not effective, such as the EU emission trading system, which allows companies to trade emission allowances, or the EU taxation regime for kerosene.

“There are a number of legislations today that exist and that are not properly addressing aviation emissions,” she says. “I think the first step is to focus on those policies that the EU can change and improve, because we know where to improve them and then develop potential other policy means to like a ban on short-haul flights or a reduction of slot applications – operational measures that can help reduce emissions on a specific level.”