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Should we get rid of air miles for climate change?
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Does earning air miles make people fly more? (Credit: N Howard/Getty Images)
Frequent flier schemes would seem to encourage flying, and thus greenhouse gas emissions. But this relationship could be less clear-cut than it appears, argues researcher Ashley Nunes.
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Flying is very far from being a green activity. A return flight from Lisbon to New York generates nearly the same level of CO2 as the average person in the EU does by heating their home all year round.

Compared with land transport, a plane requires a lot more energy, says Agnes Jocher, a professor at the Technical University of Munich, whose research explores sustainable future mobility. The result is a disproportionate climate impact compared to alternatives (trains and ferries, to name a few).

In a 2019 report on reducing emissions through behaviour change, Richard Carmichael, a social sciences researcher at Imperial College London, observed that flying was a "uniquely high-impact activity" and "the quickest and cheapest way for a consumer to increase their carbon footprint".

The very last thing we should be doing is reward frequent flyers – Herwig Schuster

Rather than simply capping travellers' ability to fly, Carmichael suggested an alternative: to limit the perks that travellers get from airlines. Among his recommendations, Carmichael proposed an outright ban on air miles and frequent flyer loyalty programmes that he says incentivise "excessive" flying.

By one estimate, trips taken using air miles account for around 10% of overall bookings. But could axing these schemes curb rising aviation emissions? Or would such a policy be fruitless – and efforts to reduce aviation be better spent elsewhere? The answer is more complicated that it might initially seem.

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Aviation loyalty programmes are around 40 years old. Texas International Airlines, a now-defunct carrier, created the first one in 1979. At the time, governments were easing restrictions over which carriers could fly, where they could fly to, and when, so competition between carriers intensified. Airline execs needed new ways to boost their brand. One solution? Offer flyers something extra to secure their loyalty – an IOU that could be cashed in later.

Paying passengers would earn "miles" based on how often and how far they flew, which could then be exchanged for a complementary trip. Although these programmes have since evolved (today's flyers are also rewarded based on how much they spend), the underlying premise remains the same.

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."

Fare-paying passengers are more valuable to carriers than freeloading flyers

And sell more flight tickets carriers do. Passengers crisscross the globe four billion times annually. Each can pick from over 22,000 routes flown by over 25,000 commercial jets that collectively account for over 42 million flights. That puts total miles travelled in the air globally in the trillions, a potential gold mine for frequent fliers often courted by carriers.

Today, banking air miles also no longer requires getting in the air. In fact, it is estimated that over half of all such miles are earned through non-flying related activities. This is because airlines have formed lucrative partnerships with third parties: credit card companies, car rental agencies and hotel chains, to name a few.

Some campaigners and researchers have called for a policy that amounts to the very opposite of frequent flier rewards – a 'frequent flier levy' (Credit: Getty Images)

Some campaigners and researchers have called for a policy that amounts to the very opposite of frequent flier rewards – a 'frequent flier levy' (Credit: Getty Images)

But does earning these miles make people fly more? It turns out that snapping up miles is one thing, using them, another. This disconnect may seem surprising, but "breakage" – industry parlance for miles that go unused – does occur.

North American airline trade body, Airlines for America (A4A), declined to comment on the prevalence of breakage in the industry. However, global consulting firm McKinsey has calculated that up to 30% of all air miles go unused: it estimates that over 30 trillion frequent-flier miles are currently sitting unspent in accounts (enough to give a free one-way flight to almost all of the roughly four billion passengers that fly in a year).

There are several reasons for this breakage. Sometimes miles expire. Sometimes flyers don't have enough miles to get somewhere they really want to go. And when they do have enough miles, finding "reward space" – airline seats that can be booked using those miles – can be a challenge (more on that later).

Flying first or business class may have a far larger carbon impact than flying economy as it occupies more space on the plane, meaning more emissions per person

Likewise, when miles are used, flyers now have more choice of what types of rewards to splurge on. Rather than only locking in free travel, the sole "go-to" for travellers of yesteryear, other choices now abound. Passengers can opt for hotel nights, electronics, gift cards or even football shirts.

And then of course there's what many travellers consider the biggest attraction: upgrades to premium cabins on an airplane. With enough miles on hand, you can move from the back of a jet to the front: from a place where cuts, squeezes and exasperation are the norm to a space where courtesy abounds, champagne flows freely and Michelin-starred meals await.

Flying first or business class, however, may have a far larger carbon impact than flying economy as it occupies more space on the plane, meaning more emissions per person. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates that flying premium leads to emissions per passenger two to three times greater than flying in economy, depending on the type of aircraft.

In sum, though, not all miles are used, not all miles are used to fly, and when they are, they are sometimes used to make flying more comfortable (versus securing a spot onboard).

Passengers crisscross the globe four billion times annually, putting total miles travelled in the air globally in the trillions (Credit: K V Weel/Getty Images)

Passengers crisscross the globe four billion times annually, putting total miles travelled in the air globally in the trillions (Credit: K V Weel/Getty Images)

Airline execs seem content with doling out miles. But how do they feel about people redeeming them?

If each passenger cashed in on their unspent miles, carbon emissions would jump. But those trips can only be taken if miles can be redeemed without restrictions (e.g. for any flight, at any time, without any additional fees). And airline execs make sure that's almost never the case.

The reason? Fare-paying passengers are more valuable to carriers than freeloading flyers. If an airline thinks a seat can be sold for more than the miles equivalent, it will make trading miles for that seat hard, if not impossible. Data backs up this sentiment. Over time, the share of flights paid in miles has fallen and a recent experiment from CBS News in the US found no seat availability for miles in key markets for 45 days straight.

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Carmichael says he supports flights that do fly being full rather than having lots of empty seats, since it's more efficient. But "how that is achieved fairly without stimulating demand for flying" requires more scrutiny, he says. Work is also needed to see which miles and rewards schemes incentivise extra flying, he adds.

Carmichael and others also stress the need to reduce energy-intensive activities like flying altogether. The International Energy Agency, for example, has pointed to the need to reduce demand for flying through measures such as taxes on flights, as part of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Some campaigners and researchers have called for a policy that amounts to the very opposite of frequent flier rewards – a "frequent flier levy" whereby the more someone flies, the higher a tax they have to pay on each flight.

But could air passengers ever go along with measures to reduce flying? Lucia Reisch, a professor of behavioural economics and policy at the University of Cambridge, thinks so. "The past years have seen a general tendency of consumers to be more interested in and engage more in sustainable consumption," she says. Alongside taxes or regulations, so-called "soft policy tools" – like simply providing people with information or nudges towards flying less – are one way to do this, she says, and "can be very successful, effective, [and] are often highly accepted".

Frequent flier programmes might seem like an obvious target, but in reality, their contribution to aviation emissions is small compared with the emissions reductions we need.

Ashley Nunes is a research fellow at Harvard Law School.

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