Craving clouds? Kicking the flying habit is tough. Speed, convenience, wanderlust...but the carbon cost is soaring. Can we ground our addiction & explore sustainably?
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Addicted to flying: Why it’s so hard to kick this carbon-intensive habit

Craving clouds? Kicking the flying habit is tough. Speed, convenience, wanderlust...but the carbon cost is soaring. Can we ground our addiction & explore sustainably?

Flying for overseas travel has become an established and growing phenomenon in Western societies since the 1950’s. In the UK, the National Travel Survey shows that 52% of respondents in 2019 travelled at least once overseas by plane, with 8% of respondents taking four or more flights. Air travel has rapidly recovered from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is expected to grow significantly over the coming decades, with the International Air Transportation Association estimating that air travel is due to double from 4 billion passengers in 2018 to 8 billion in 2040.

However, the environmental impact of aviation cannot be overlooked. Research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) (IPCC) indicates that the aviation sector alone contributes 2.4% of all human-induced carbon emissions. Additionally, the formation of high-altitude contrail cirrus and nitrous oxides exacerbates the greenhouse effect, as highlighted by recent studies. These environmental ramifications, coupled with projections of aviation expansion, present a substantial challenge for the tourism industry in promoting sustainable travel practices.

Research on tourism and decarbonisation has attempted to meet this challenge by exploring several pathways for climate mitigation. Firstly, the study highlights the potential for technological advancements in aircraft engineering and the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels to reduce emissions. Secondly, behavioral scientists emphasize the importance of understanding psychological factors influencing individuals’ decisions to fly or opt for alternative modes of travel.  Thirdly, there’s a call from tourism experts for collective action aimed at significantly reducing air travel through regulatory and organizational reforms. However, these conventional pathways to decarbonising tourist air travel face significant obstacles, including the currently unviable nature of sustainable aviation fuels at scale, the limited nature of individualised behavioural approaches, and the political barriers to regulatory change.

How can we reduce the climate impact of tourism through the way we travel? Innovative products and services should to be developed in the tourism sector to promote low-carbon travel through focusing on the meanings, materials and competencies needed to transition to climate-conscious travel.

Stewart Barr

Understanding the social practice of flying for holidays

The research by Barr and Shaw argues for an alternative perspective, which aims to understand why air travel has become so entwined with international tourism and how we could learn lessons for promoting low-carbon alternatives. The study contends that travelling by air for tourism is an example of a dominant social practice; that is, a set of normalised activities shared by groups in the way they live their lives. Unlike studies of individual behaviour, which focus on how individuals make decisions, social practice research focuses on how shared activities (practices) develop and are shaped by history, infrastructure, technology, and economic trends. In this way, rather than asking why an individual decides to fly on a given holiday, we might instead ask how the widespread social practice of flying for tourism has evolved over time because:

Practices do not appear out of the blue… Understanding their historical trajectories is crucial for analysing changes in tourism practices.

Machiel Lamers

To address this question, one can use a framework developed by social practice theorists that elucidates the development and perpetuation of practices, even in the face of pressing demands for change. This framework, Meanings, Materials, and Competencies (MMC), offers insights into how various elements sustain air travel as a dominant practice. Table 1 presents an illustrative example of how each component of the MMC framework reinforces the prevalence of air travel. Subsequently, the discussion draws upon this research alongside a study examining the transition to low-carbon travel conducted with input from consumers and tourism professionals.

Table 1 Meanings, competencies and materials associated with air travel

MeaningsCompetencesMaterials
Status, speed, exotic experiences, sharing experiences on social media, storytelling, identity formation, value for money, ease and simplicityOnline searching and booking, understanding baggage and security requirements, negotiating an airport, managing fear of flying, language skillsDisposable income, credit/debit card, passport, airports, airport access, aircraft, ground transportation, online booking systems
Credit. Barr and Shaw, 2022

Unpacking the meanings, competencies and materials of flying

Meanings represent the messaging and narratives positively linked to a particular practice, akin to establishing social norms of behavior. The research by Barr and Shaw has demonstrated how vigorous advertising campaigns by tour operators from the 1960’s onwards were able to promote air travel as a high-status, exotic, highly desirable experience that was at the same time affordable and accessible (Figure 1). In the 1960s, air travel for the masses was portrayed as being able to capitalize on the glamour associated with flying in popular culture. More recently, low-cost air travel has been marketed towards a wide range of tourist experiences, from sun sea and sand’ family holidays to the desirability of regular and affordable city breaks.

Figure 1. Horizon advertisement from 1960
Credit. Travel Trade Gazette. Courtesy of TTG Media, ttgmedia.com

The development of inclusive fly packages in the late 1950s was linked to the growth of tour operators such as Horizon, who in the 1960s announced ‘the greatest programme ever of inclusive holidays by air for most discerning clients’ (Figure 1)). Surveys undertaken from the 1950’s onwards revealed that tourism emerged as a socially conscious activity. For example, a 1961 market research survey in London showed that 89% agreed with the statement ‘continental holidays are more exciting’. Furthermore, a price war in the late 1960s initiated by Thomas Cook led to lower prices; for instance, the cost of a flight package holiday to Palma fell by 27% in real terms between 1967 and 1971. Such changes democratised continental holidays by plane.

Competencies refer to the skills required to embrace and sustain a practice. Research has shown that this was a particular focus of tour companies from the 1950s onwards, who knew that air travel was unfamiliar and anxiety-producing for most would-be travellers. A variety of initiatives and support systems were implemented, including the introduction of package holidays, which provided straightforward booking options for entire vacations (Figure 2). In practical terms, tour companies offered customized assistance to customers, such as guidance on airport procedures and information about local cuisine. They also stationed representatives at resorts to address concerns ranging from language barriers to water safety. As a result of providing tourists with these competencies, there was a growing sense of confidence in utilizing air travel as a hassle-free means of vacationing.

Figure 2. 1964 advertisement of package holidays by air
Credit. Travel Trade Gazette. Courtesy of TTG Media, ttgmedia.com

Materials are the infrastructure, technologies, and physical ‘things’ needed to establish a practice. From the 1950s, there was widespread cooperation to standardise air transport operations, meaning crossing borders was relatively easy. Investment in airport capacity provided the infrastructure required to expand air travel, while new and more efficient aircraft technology made mass air transport possible at relatively low costs (Figure 3). At the consumer scale, materials have adapted to the needs of air travel—everything from luggage and flight accessories to online booking systems and universal flight search engines, such as Skyscanner.

Figure 3. 1957 advertisement, featuring the latest technology to fly tourists to the sun
Credit. Travel Trade Gazette. Courtesy of TTG Media, ttgmedia.com

Considering these developments, it’s evident that reducing the appeal of air travel for holidays poses a significant challenge. However, focusing solely on reducing flying overlooks a crucial aspect. Research has demonstrated how flying, once considered an elite and anxiety-inducing activity in the 1950s, has become an entrenched social practice. It’s suggested that the meanings, materials, and competencies framework can be utilized to contemplate how low-carbon tourist travel could be envisioned for a country like the UK, which benefits from international undersea connections and an extensive European train network (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Ski trains now run direct from London to the French Alps
Credit. Florian Pépellin. Licence: CC-BY-SA 4.0

A low-carbon travel alternative: What needs to change?

The research underscores hurdles in transitioning from air to land-based transport, specifically international rail travel. One challenge is recognizing the uneven distribution of air travel in the UK. Recent research has demonstrated that while dis-advantaged groups have contributed more in relative terms to the growth in air travel since 2001 (possibly due to the growth in low-cost carriers and the social normalization of air travel), it remains the case that those from higher-income backgrounds have contributed significantly more in absolute terms, with this group accounting for much higher volumes of air travel growth when compared to dis-advantaged groups (Büchs and Mattioli, 2021). It is this group that flies more frequently, which represents the potential for promoting low-carbon holiday travel due to their carbon footprint. Notably, they exhibit greater climate concern and a willingness to alter their behavior.

The second challenge lies in reshaping perceptions of low-carbon tourist travel. Train travel often carries negative connotations among UK travelers, influenced by their experiences with British rail services. Rail is commonly associated with slowness, unreliability, and lower status. Yet, consumer research reveals positive aspects of rail travel, emphasizing its comfort, sociability, and sense of adventure. Unlike the cohesive relationships between airlines and tour operators, rail tourism faces fragmented, conflicting national norms.

The third challenge revolves around competency development. Research indicates that travelers often find booking land-based transport for holidays confusing, time-consuming, anxiety-inducing, and expensive. Concerns about train travel in other countries include difficulty making connections, locating platforms, and coping with disruptions. While airports are typically navigable and familiar to most travelers, train stations can evoke feelings of unfamiliarity and stress.

The final challenge pertains to infrastructure. Despite the seamless coordination between the tourism industry and airlines, the infrastructure, technologies, and materials necessary for convenient land travel during holidays are largely lacking. This includes integrated booking systems, limited capacity at rail terminals, and collaboration between national transport entities and rail companies.

Do these challenges warrant abandoning the idea of promoting holiday travel by land? The research by Barr and Shaw argues that while these obstacles are significant, they resemble those faced by pioneers in air travel during the mid-20th century. Drawing inspiration from how these pioneers innovated to popularize air travel prompts questioning why the same cannot be done for land-based tourist travel today. In the face of a climate and ecological crisis, a swift transition to low-carbon holiday travel is imperative. Achieving this necessitates researchers to reconsider what imbues meaning into travel experiences, how skills for sustainable mobility are acquired, and how infrastructures for a sustainable future in tourism are constructed.

Recommendations:

  1. Tour companies, rail, ferry, and coach operators should develop integrated and standardised timetables and booking apps to make searching for itineraries simpler and faster.
  2. Tour companies and transport operators should develop integrated holiday packages for various consumer segments, starting with those most likely to switch from plane to land transport.
  3. To open up land-based holiday travel to those from disadvantaged groups, low-cost operations should enable those on lower incomes to have access to lower-carbon tourism experiences (examples from Europe include Ouigo and Avlo). 
  4. The government should incentivise a switch in investment from airport expansion to rail capacity, working with European partners to establish high-capacity rail links to multiple European destinations.

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Journal reference

Barr, S., & Shaw, G. (2022). “Getting the summer you deserve”: locking-in flying to the tourist experience. In Low-Cost Aviation (pp. 213-231). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-820131-2.00002-3

Stewart Barr is a Professor of Geography at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on public responses to the climate and ecological emergency. He has worked for over 20 years in the field of sustainable lifestyles, exploring individual and societal dimensions of energy use, water consumption, waste and recycling, and most recently transport and mobility. He was the founding co-director of the University of Exeter’s MSc in Sustainable Development and has chaired the University’s Sustainability Committee.

Gareth Shaw is a Professor of Retail and Tourism Management at the University of Exeter Business School. He has published numerous papers on tourism and retailing and has co-authored or co-edited several books, including the following: Managing Coastal Tourism Resorts: A Global Perspective (2007); Critical Issues in Tourism (second edition, Blackwell, 2002); Tourism and Tourism Spaces (Sage, 2004); Heritage, Screen, and Literary Tourism (2018). His research interests include tourism and entrepreneurship in small firms, tourism and innovation, and tourism, disability, social exclusion, and social marketing.