More consumers are paying attention to ‘flygskam’, but how will it affect agents and, more widely, the UK aviation industry?
As the concept of “flygskam” – the Swedish for “flight shame” – has been crystallising in Britain, Extinction Rebellion has been busy hitting the headlines.
Originating in Scandinavia, flygskam is a movement encouraging people to stop flying to lower carbon emissions.
While not yet common parlance in the UK, a study released by Swiss bank UBS this summer shows it is entering Brits’ consciousness and, crucially, is now impacting on consumer decisions too.
The study, which surveyed 6,097 people, revealed 16% of UK travellers said they had reduced their flights due to climate change. This was below the scores in the other surveyed countries: France, Germany and the US, all around 23-24%.
What’s equally notable is the growth rate. Both the US and Germany were involved in a similar poll (by UBS again) in May this year when 19% and 23% made the same admission, meaning the trend seems to have accelerated in just three months.
The UK’s attention on green issues might have been speeded up by Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests in London – which also targeted aviation specifically when about 150 protesters attempted to shut down London City airport among other activities.
Responsible Travel’s director of marketing and content, Tim Williamson, believes flygskam’s foothold is set to grow in the UK.
He said it would be wrong to write off the movement as a form of virtue signalling among the middle classes keen to jump on the latest green fad, a view that has been raised in the press.
“The key here is that 1% of the UK population take 20% of the flights and 15% take 70% of the flights,” he said.
“Yes, it might be the Boden-wearing middle class, but they are doing the flying. If they think about changing their behaviour, it will have a material effect on flying.”
Becca Rowland, a partner at aviation consultancy Midas Aviation, said while it was too early to see whether people’s changing attitudes were impacting the UK aviation market, she thought it likely flygskam would grow here, with ensuing repercussions.
She said: “What concerns me is consumer behaviour, and if we look at the UK market there have been reports that, as a result of climate change, people are changing their diets.
“We need to fly less, primarily because industry innovations aren’t keeping up with the growth of flying”
“A quarter of people say they have reduced the amount of meat they eat. What if a quarter of the population said they were going to reduce flying – what would the impact be?”
Rowland also argues climate change is not a problem we can easily recover from.
She said: “When I look at major events [affecting aviation] that have occurred in the past, whether it was 9/11, the financial crash or Sars, we see a slowing of [aviation market] growth – or it stops – but within a period of time we’re back at 4% to 5% annual growth.
“I feel slightly differently about [climate change]. After 9/11 or the recession you knew instinctively it would turn around. Climate change is not going to go away in the next five years, so where does that leave us?
“I’m not saying [aviation] is not going to bounce back, but I wonder if this time it is different and the industry doesn’t seem to be preparing for it.”
Williamson argues the answer is not to stop flying altogether, though. “There are communities around the world that depend on tourism,” he said. “You take it away and poverty, [excessive] migration and other horrible things will happen.”
Instead, he believes people should fly less if we are to halt the 26% increase in aviation emissions since 2013.
He added: “We need to fly less, primarily because the innovations of the industry aren’t keeping up with the growth of flying. The efficiencies are not enough and now we’re beginning to see a movement about flying less.”
Williamson said such a move could even benefit agents prepared to help their clients to minimise their emissions.
He said: “Things like short breaks to European cities have got to stop – the carbon released is massive.”
Instead, Williamson argued agents should be persuading people to travel further afield and to stay for longer once in-resort.
“From an agent point of view, you’ve got the potential to earn more commission doing that, and from a customer point of view it is a proper way to unwind,” he said.
He added agents should also do their homework on the best carbon offsetting schemes to use, believing many to be misleading.
Employing such moves may yet offset flygskam for UK consumers. It would be a great shame if travel and tourism were to weaken due to other, more draconian solutions being implemented.
The Sweden-based Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) is – like many others – already preparing to deal with the flygskam movement.
Head of environment and CSR Lars Andersen Resare said he had seen a general decline in demand but added this was down to several reasons. He said he was pleased by his country’s increasing awareness of the need to be sustainable.
“[The conversation] is not only about aviation; it is good as we get to debate and discuss it,” Resare said.
He added SAS was preparing for a cleaner future, largely by overhauling its fleet as it seeks to cut its total emissions by 25% by 2030.
“That’s quite ambitious compared with other airlines, but we can do it with our fleet renewal,” Resare said.
He added the airline currently has an order with Airbus for 80 A320s, eight A350s and a couple of A321s with completion expected by 2023. SAS is also working on growing its use of sustainable fuel, while Resare is confident working with other transport sectors like the railways will also improve the situation.
“Our interest is in looking at inter-modal solutions where we connect rather than compete,” he added.