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Flying: What's the big deal?

Tamsin Walker
April 9, 2021

As travel becomes an option again and the question of to-fly-or-not-to-fly is back on the table, DW asks what all the fuss is about.

Condensation trails in the sky during sunset
Are you a frequent flyer? If so you're part of a mere 1% of jet setters that regularly take to the skiesImage: Ohde/Bildagentur-online/picture alliance

Anyone who's ever had a flying dream will be familiar with that sense of euphoria when their feet finally leave the ground. Maybe it was such nocturnal fantasies of the mind that gave birth to the legend of Icarus or inspired the likes of Otto Lilienthal and the Wright Brothers. Or maybe not. 

Either which way, we as a species have long been drawn to journey above the clouds. And our fascination, it seems, endures. 

For all the chaos of airport security, overpriced water and pitiful legroom, air travel has never been more popular. During peak holiday periods, the number of planes taking off in a single day can easily exceed 200,000. And in 2018, a monumental 4.4 billion people took to the skies. That's more than half the population of the planet.

Except it's not. 

Nothing like it, in fact, because many of those travelers are one and the same. Not clones, or holograms, but frequent flyers, clocking up gazillions of air miles to earn their status — and free flights. In reality, according to recent estimates, a modest 11% of the global population actually boarded a plane in 2018, while fewer than 5% flew internationally. 

So what? 

Good question. It really is. And for anyone who was wondering, this is where the environment comes in. See, that same research estimates that the most frequent fliers of all, which together comprise an estimated minuscule 1% (yes, ONE PERCENT) of humankind, are likely responsible for more than 50% of emissions from passenger air travel. 

Fair? Nah, not so much. Worrying? Just a tad. 

Plane flies over the ocean
Only 11% of the world's population took a flight in 2018, despite more than 4.4 billion flights during that yearImage: United Airlines

Because even in transporting such a tiny proportion of the global population (and some freight), the commercial airline industry manages to chug out carbon dioxide to the tune of some 915 million tons each year. For anyone looking blank right now, that equates to more than 2% of global CO2 emissions.

It's also about the same amount that fallen-from-green-grace-Germany emits annually. But that's perhaps another story. 

Why should I care?

An even better question. Yes, it would be extremely convenient at this point to be like "…I only fly once or twice a year, so it's not my CO2, and besides I'm on Insta now and it's either go places or post pics of my breakfast."

And sure, porridge photos are overrated, but the other side of the coin is that (rather like coins themselves) flights add up. And the more often we fly off in search of exotic sunsets — or anything else for that matter — the hotter the world becomes, because greenhouse gases trap more heat in the atmosphere. And there is such a thing as too hot. 

Flight departures display at Düsseldorf Airport in Germany
Plane tickets and jet fuel often aren't subject to taxes — meaning they can often be cheaper than long-distance busesImage: Rupert Oberhäuser/dpa/picture alliance
Sunset in La Palma, spain
Admit it ... sometimes that cheap flight to the south of Europe for the perfect Insta pic is too tempting to pass upImage: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

The average temperature on our planet has already increased by about 1.1 degrees Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the pre-industrial age. It might not sound like much, but it really is. Science connects that degree of warming to violent storms and wildfires, prolonged heat waves and sudden floods. 

Sure, anyone who has not been affected might be thinking "…yeah, but that stuff doesn't happen to me, and did I mention Insta?..." But… and there is a big but here, just because it hasn't happened yet, doesn't mean it won't. As the planet continues to heat, which it will if we don't slash our greenhouse gas emissions however we can, we'll be looking at even more extreme weather in the future.

That sucks. There must someone out there with the answers…

Well, there's no silver bullet. The only options on the table so far — besides not flying, that is — are offsetting programs that invite passengers to invest in projects designed to reduce emissions and early forays into electric planes and kerosene-based jet fuel. Oh, and unpopular proposals to ban domestic flights or tax tickets and fuel. 


No kidding. Let's start with cold, hard cash. In some countries, including the EU, certain plane tickets and jet fuel are not taxed, which makes flying cheaper than it would otherwise be. About as cheap as a long-distance bus in some cases. France has proposed tough levies on tickets (up to €400/$475 for a one-way business class ticket on flights of more than 2,000 kilometers/1,200 miles), but the reception has been lukewarm.  

Do we need to stop flying?

Carbon offsets, on the other hand, are the current darling for passengers seeking to fight flight guilt. And it's not hard to see why.

All they have to do to keep flying with a clean conscience is chuck a bit of cash at emissions reduction project that plant trees, erect wind turbines or encourage solar cooking, that kind of thing. 

For anyone thinking  "…awesome, sign me up because I really want to take some Bali beach sunset pics," it's worth making sure the project is legit. But even if it is, not even the cleanest of green schemes prevent emissions in the first place.  

That leaves us with the brave new worlds of electric planes and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). 

On the clean fuel front, Boeing recently pitched itself as a glimmer of hope with its professed ambition to make its planes capable of flying on 100% SAF by 2030. That would be one giant step from the International Air Transport Association's 2020 projections of a 0.015% sustainable share of the global jet fuel market.   

Tropical rainforest in Uganda
Experts say many carbon offsetting programs are limited in helping reduce carbon emissions overallImage: C. Kaiser/blickwinkel/picture alliance

Electric planes? Yeah, we might be waiting a while for a Tesla of the skies. Heavy batteries are an issue, which means hybrids are more likely in the medium-term. Experts reckon it could be decades before we can fly from New York to Berlin without emitting CO2. Maybe it will happen sooner, but don't put your money on it this summer. Or next. 

Where does that leave me? 

Quite possibly in a bad mood. Uncomfortable facts can have that effect. The easiest, most obvious thing we can do is to fly less. That's not to say we should never take to the skies again or resort to porridge pics. But it is to say each time we decide not to fly, we are making a positive contribution to slowing global warming. And after a year of being forcibly grounded, we know that not every holiday has to be a plane ride away, or that every international business meeting has to be conducted face-to-face.

We've all grown a little wiser now. Haven't we? 

Additional reporting by Martin Kübler.

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