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Call Me Shirley

Flying Less Could Be Fun, Actually

Air travel isn’t just bad for the planet—it’s also an objectively miserable experience. The right policies could give us much better options.

Actors Leslie Nielson and Robert Hays sit next to an inflatable pilot.
Paramount Pictures
A still from “Airplane!”—a 1980 film that now feels a little too on the nose

Even if your flight doesn’t catch fire, lose a door at 16,000 feet, or ruin your holiday plans, flying sucks. It’s famously not great for the planet: Aviation accounts for around 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. But it’s arguably an even bigger assault on the senses, thanks to an unholy pairing of greedy corporations with a bloated security state whose shared goal would appear to be humiliating everyone involved. (Those companies’ actual goal, rationally speaking, is to turn a profit; our dignity is just collateral damage.)

The best lie the fossil fuel industry ever told was that a more carbon-intensive life is a more enjoyable one. For decades, the American right has tried to convince the public that cutting greenhouse gas emissions means accepting a degraded quality of life—hamburgers snatched from hungry hands and dashed summer vacation plans. One might argue, understandably, that emissions and degrading mile-high experiences are a reasonable price to pay for democratizing air travel and opening up the world to people who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to experience its farther reaches. Some 90 percent of U.S. residents have flown commercial in their lifetime, compared to just 25 percent before the industry was deregulated in 1978.

Working and middle-class travelers exploring new places, though, or even connecting with far-flung family and friends, is a relatively marginal factor in the massive proliferation of air travel and its associated emissions. Business travel accounts for as much as 75 percent of airline profits. Flights in business class, meanwhile, produce three times as many carbon emissions as those in economy. First-class seats are nine times as carbon-intensive. An increasing amount of revenue is also coming from frequent-flyer schemes with major credit card companies. Airlines, in other words, appeal to the rich and treat everyone else like cattle.

The industry’s drive to deliver big payouts to shareholders helps explain some of the danger passengers have faced in recent weeks. Luke Goldstein notes in The American Prospect that the questionable design of the door plug that detached midair on an Alaska Airlines flight last week is partly due to designing planes to maximize the number of customers on board, pushed for by budget airlines eager to cram more people in while satisfying requirements to provide a certain number of exit doors per customer. By building plug-in-play fuselages with “cut-outs” that can sub out exit doors for plugs, Boeing has been able to keep costs down while tailoring products to different buyers. As Zeynep Tufecki pointed out this week, writing on the Japan Airlines collision with a Japanese coast guard plane on January 2, flyers have legions of dedicated and highly skilled workers to thank for protecting them against their bosses’ cost-cutting measures. The Lever reports that former employees at a Boeing supplier had been raising alarm bells about an “excessive amount of defects” with plane construction, and were allegedly told to falsify documents.

Unsurprisingly, airlines’ quest for profits has also led them to seek easy outs from cutting their emissions, which have doubled since 1987. By 2050, the World Resources Institute finds that aviation could account for between 12 and 27 percent of global emissions. Delta faces legal action over its claims to be the first “carbon-neutral airline,” premised on extraordinarily dubious carbon-offsetting schemes. Like shipping, international aviation emissions are excluded from the Paris Agreement. That pact is made up of country-level pledges to reduce emissions, and transit between countries presents a thorny accounting challenge. Should the carbon cost of an Emirates flight between New York and Frankfurt, for example, be chalked up to the United States, the European Union, or the United Arab Emirates? The U.N. Agency charged with sorting out this problem—and aligning air travel behind the goals of the Paris Agreement—has routinely taken the easy way out. Last month, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, made the almost laughably modest pledge of slashing carbon emissions by just 5 percent by 2030, under its broader goal to reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050.

Airlines’ unenforceable pledges to cut emissions, when they’re made at all, are largely premised on rapid advances in the development of so-called “sustainable aviation fuels” and offsetting schemes. Airlines imagine such advances will allow them to continue growing rapidly. For years, though, ballooning industry emissions have coincided with an increasingly awful flying experience marked by new fees, more cramped seats, and an onslaught of scheduling nightmares. And global warming is helping to make rides bumpier: Rising temperatures have brought instability to the jet stream and a rise in so-called “clear-air” turbulence not caused by stormy, windy conditions. According to a recent study, severe air turbulence over the North Atlantic has increased by more than 50 percent over the last 40 years.  

Airlines retain customers in part because the alternatives on offer aren’t exactly appealing—especially in the U.S. High-traffic routes in the so-called Acela Corridor on the East Coast are pricey and prone to delays and disruptions; deadly derailments aren’t unheard of, either. Train travel between major population centers elsewhere—let alone more rural areas—is even more of a challenge.

While visiting friends in California last spring, my partner and I booked an Amtrak ride from San Diego to Oakland. That (optimistically) 12-hour journey hinges on first catching an early morning train to Los Angeles. From there, the Coast Starlight chugs along Southern California’s scenic shores before dipping back through the Central Valley and on up through the Bay Area, continuing on to its final destination in Seattle. Snag a seat in the observation car, and you’ll get views that span from Santa Barbara’s manicured oceanside manses to rock-cliff beaches and hazy fields filled with pump-jacks and almonds. For lunch and dinner you can sign up for a perfectly adequate meal service in the dining car, where Amtrak employees will matchmake parties of two or fewer to populate a four-top.

It’s a gorgeous, slightly whimsical, and completely impractical journey. The whole trip takes almost double the time it would in a car. Prices aren’t outrageous by U.S. standards; a coach seat this week will run you about $160. But the lack of reliable Wi-Fi means either taking off a day from work or testing your luck with a mobile hot spot. You’re also liable to hit some kind of snag along the way. When we showed up to board our first leg, a compassionate Amtrak desk attendant informed us that it’d been canceled, with no email or signage indicating as much. There were no alternate routes that’d allow us to make our connection. She disappeared for a few minutes into a back office before informing us that she’d called an Uber to drive us all the way to Downtown Los Angeles’s Union Station, just in time for rush-hour traffic.

On vacation this summer, by contrast, I took a stunningly pleasant, functional train journey from Paris to Marseille. Well-equipped three-hour trains between the two cities—just a few miles closer than San Diego and Oakland—run several times a day, and cost between $55 and $110, depending on when you book. You can book a slightly slower ride for less than $20. 

Last year, France banned domestic flights that can be substituted with train journeys that last two-and-a-half hours or less. You can, that is, still take a flight from Paris to Marseille. But why? By train you can show up 15 minutes before departure in the center of the city, pick up a sandwich for a few Euros, and be deposited out among the bustling old port city’s many restaurants, cafés, and shops after your speedy zip through the French countryside. The Wi-Fi is fast, and the outlets work. Take a plane, and you’ll almost certainly spend more money for the pleasure of trekking miles outside the city hours before your flight and getting herded through a Byzantine national security infrastructure. On the other side awaits a glorified mall filled with overpriced snacks and haggard travelers waiting to be loaded into a sweaty metal tube.

France is not some eco-socialist paradise. Its much-hyped short-haul flight ban is riddled with exceptions and has eliminated just three routes. Since most high-speed lines are routed through Paris, rail service between even larger cities remains sadly inadequate. Public transit is sparse in more rural areas and often overly oriented toward tourists, particularly in the mountains. Japanese and Austrian public transit riders, among others, might well be appalled by France’s train networks. Americans are easier to impress, of course, since only 3 percent of trips in the U.S. are made via public transit.

The approach airline CEOs take to the climate challenge is disturbingly similar to official U.S. climate policy: Leave our current way of doing things intact, but make the energy and fuel sources that power it greener. That’s especially true when it comes to transportation, the country’s largest-emitting sector. Air travel accounts for a relatively small portion of that pollution (10 percent) compared with light-duty vehicles like cars, trucks, and SUVs (53 percent). Despite its generous, uncapped subsidies for electric vehicles, the Inflation Reduction Act is not expected to make a substantial dent in those figures. The bill offers a few crumbs for community transportation improvements that promote walkability and bikeability—just $3 billion—and $1 billion for zero-emissions heavy-duty vehicles, including trucks and school buses. The IRA doesn’t offer any support ​for public transit operations nor capital funding for electrifying transit fleets. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, meanwhile, invests $110 billion in highways, bridges, and roads, including for the construction of new motorways and expansions, and $42 billion for airports, ports and waterways. There’s $66 billion for passenger and commercial rail, and $39 billion for public transit.

Parallels between uncomfortable air travel and deadly car culture abound, although America’s car-clogged, emissions-plagued roads are a good deal more dangerous than its skies. In an effort to skirt environmental regulations and make more money, U.S. automakers have spent the last half-century specializing in big, fast, expensive cars; trucks—perennial bestsellers—have gotten 1,300 pounds heavier since 1990. SUVs and vans with hoods that are 40 inches or taller are 45 percent more likely to kill pedestrians than smaller cars. Amid rising traffic deaths, though, federal climate policy is incentivizing consumers to buy bigger, more resource-intensive electric cars. Sedans that cost more than $55,000 are ineligible for electric vehicle tax credits provided by the IRA. The cutoff for trucks and SUVs is $80,000.

The alternatives to being stuck on a tarmac or in traffic aren’t just safer and more climate-friendly. They’re more pleasant too. Making these alternatives realistic options in this country, however, requires a shift in how lives and communities here are structured and a head-on confrontation with monied interests. The people who’ve gotten rich off business as usual—oil, car, and airline executives—have spent decades trying to convince the public that those sorts of changes will leave them worse off. Cunningly, they’ve framed air and car travel as a consumer choice and a right—distracting the public from the fact that, for many, there’s no choice in the matter at all.

Weary of doing battle with corporate titans, policymakers have compromised by writing policies that gently take some of the carbon out of our deadly, inefficient, pain-in-the-ass status quo. There’s a strong climate case to be made for decarbonization measures that do more than make cars and planes a little bit greener and instead reduce the amount people in the U.S. have to drive and fly overall. For my part, at least, there’s an even more compelling reason to lessen dependence on car and plane travel: They suck!