Most people don't fly very much, and business travel is falling. What if we didn't need that new runway after all?
For years now, the debate over flying has been shackled by a feeling that it has to be all or nothing. Fly and be proud, or abstain. Support more runways, or deprive hardworking people of their week in the sun. And if you’ve been following the debate on whether to expand Gatwick or Heathrow, you’ll know that the ‘nothing’ option didn’t get much of a look-in. Climate change hasn't really had a look in either.
But there’s a new idea doing the rounds that could shake things up a bit. A group called Fellow Travellers have looked at the details of how Brits fly, and come up with a way to reduce the total number of flights without ruining everyone’s holidays. Let’s take a look.
Most people don't actually fly that much
At the heart of it is a little-known fact: most people hardly fly at all.
Even though Brits fly more on average than any other country, more than half of us took no flights at all last year. 22% took one return flight, and 11% took two.
That doesn’t add up to much, but what about business trips? Nope. Business travel is actually declining, and now accounts for just 12% of all flights.
So who’s doing all the flying? In short, it’s a tiny number of people with lots and lots of money. According to the Fellow Travellers, 15% of the population took 70% of all flights in 2014. People in that 15% group earn more than £115,000 a year. They tend to have a second home abroad. And their most popular destinations? Tax havens.
Generation EasyJet this ain’t.
So, we’ve got a tiny minority crowding the skies with trips to their holiday homes abroad. Let’s imagine for a moment that we didn’t think that was the best way to spend our national carbon budget. How do we fix this without pricing ordinary people out of the skies?
A fairer way to fly
Fellow Travellers’ solution is pretty simple: scrap the current flight tax (Air Passenger Duty) and replace it with a Frequent Flyer Levy that taxes people based on how much they fly.
With this system, everyone gets one tax free return flight each year. Tax kicks in at a low rate from the second return flight, then goes up a notch for each extra one taken in that year. So the frequent flyer's monthly trip to their Tuscan villa gets much more expensive, and everyone else’s occasional week in the sunshine gets a bit cheaper.
Because all the demand is coming from ultra-frequent leisure flyers, taxing this end of the market would make a huge dent in overall flight numbers. So much, in fact, that we wouldn’t need to expand Gatwick or Heathrow.
Could this ever happen? It’s hard to say. But next time someone tells you we’ve got to concrete-over the South East with new runways, it’s worth remembering that there is another route.
Statistics via afreeride.com, DfT statistical release, July 2014, Public experiences and attitudes towards air travel, and DfT’s National Travel survey 2013.
Cover image: Philip Capper, Creative Commons