The Biden Administration Wants to “Build Back Better”—What Could That Mean for Air Travel?


In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic  reduced air travel and its climate footprint to about 10 percent compared to 2019, and environmentalists saw a window of opportunity. But as of this summer, air travel is “recovering” rapidly? Aviation is a significant contributor to global warming. Our planet can ill afford for us to keep building on the same air transportation system. And the problem extends beyond carbon—planes’ nitrogen oxide, sulphate aerosols, and water vapor emissions create contrails and cirrus clouds, potentially doubling their contributions to the climate catastrophe.  

What would a policy solution even look like? 

In a word, it’s complicated. 

Consider the fact that France made headlines last April when its national legislature voted to ban flights between cities connected by 2.5-hour-or-shorter train journeys, raising the question of whether other countries, including the United States, should follow this example.

Maybe so, but Andrew Murphy of Transport & Environment (T&E), one of the leading pan-European environmental organizations tracking this issue, writes that France’s new policy is “more symbolic than it is effective.”

That’s because very few flights are affected by the new French law—trains are frequently available and the travel time by rail is short, so few people choose to fly. That’s as true in the US as it is in France. Amtrak’s Acela, for instance, which isn’t even “high speed” by French standards, has been fast and frequent enough to capture most of the former Boston-New York-Washington air shuttle traffic.

Here, on the other hand, Boeing is the largest single exporter of US manufactured goods and, as such, a politically untouchable icon of US industry—any efforts to deprive Boeing of business in favor of foreign high-speed rail-speed will likely be met with resistance. Because the US, unlike France, has no high-speed rail industry, and what train infrastructure we do have relies on imported equipment and technology. (And Boeing’s ventures into railcar design and manufacturing have seen little success.)

So if, despite some positive signs, this new French law isn’t exactly a model for action in the US, what should be done here? In search of ideas, if not definitive answers, I spoke with climate scientists, lobbyists, litigators, and campaigners working on this issue in the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and with international organizations.

Inside the US Air Travel Issue

Common themes in our conversations included missed opportunities and airtight lobbying on the aviation industry’s part. Prior to the pandemic, for instance, US aviation industry lobbyists had already succeeded in getting aircraft emissions excluded from national commitments to greenhouse gas reductions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), an industry-friendly body, got to develop its own scheme to reduce aircraft emissions.

After years of foot-dragging, ICAO in 2016 adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which is supposed to create a “cap and trade” emissions framework—largely regarded by environmentalists as too little, too late, even in its original incarnation. Simply put, off-setting, as Jo Dardenne of T&E describes it, allows airlines to “continue to pollute but buy emissions reductions elsewhere.”

What’s more, the CORSIA caps were to be based on the average level of aviation emissions during 2019 and 2020. As previously mentioned, the pandemic reduced air travel worldwide in 2020 by more than 60 percent, which would have meant a much lower emissions baseline for the scheme—which is what environmentalists wanted in the first place.

Last year, however, airlines got ICAO to set the cap-and-trade baselines according to the higher (pre-pandemic) 2019 emissions levels, rather than the lower 2019-2020 average. Air travel isn’t predicted to return to pre-pandemic levels for several years. So setting the CORSIA baselines at 2019 levels gives airlines a free pass to pump their emissions back to 2019 levels before the caps kick in—and gives them several years’ worth of postponement before they have to do anything to comply with off-setting requirements. This amendment turned the pandemic from an opportunity to hasten a reduction in aviation emissions to an excuse for (further) delay. 

The US government missed another opportunity to push airlines toward sustainability last spring by giving airlines $50 billion in pandemic relief—without attaching any environmental strings to these handouts and without acquiring any significant equity in exchange for that infusion of money.

The government of Germany, in contrast, demanded a substantial share of ownership of  in exchange for bailing out the national airline. France did the same (to a somewhat lesser degree) with Air France and KLM. “Relationships between government and industry are bound to change when governments have invested so much in airlines,” Dardenne says. Now the German government can use its power as a shareholder, in addition to its legislative power, to influence Lufthansa’s practices. The US government has no comparable shareholder power over the post-pandemic practices of US airlines.

Why were the terms of pandemic relief to airlines different in Europe? Dardenne points to the influence of Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future/School Strike for Climate on the most recent elections to the European Parliament in 2019. Climate concerns “influenced all the major parties’ platforms, not just the Greens,” she says. Pandemic and post-pandemic European discussions of aviation, indeed, occurred in a climate of cross-party consensus on the need for at least some degree of climate action.

The stark divide between US and Europe airline pandemic relief only gets worse from there—instead of being paid to reduce their emissions, US airlines were paid by taxpayers (via the federal government) to fly empty planes throughout the US at the height of the pandemic. As a condition of receiving pandemic relief money, airlines were required to maintain minimum flight frequencies to each airport they served, regardless of demand and environmental cost. That particular provision of the bailout reflects the fact that economic development agencies, chambers of commerce, and policymakers tend to see airline service as essential to attracting and retaining businesses and jobs—any reduction in air service to a given city or region is perceived as an existential threat to that region’s economy. (Ironically, the climate footprint of those empty flights—and thus the global warming catastrophe at large—are not considered existential threats.) Even when airports operate at a loss, the assumption in the US is that scheduled air service—the more the better, always—is critical to attracting other businesses and jobs. What’s more, many US airports used the pandemic as an opportunity to carry out construction, expansion, and renovation projects while traffic was down.

The European Investment Bank, meanwhile, is considering a ban on new loans for airport construction or expansion out of concerns for both financial and environmental risks. In the United Kingdom, for instance, “The pandemic has made some airports pause for thought. Airports that had not begun the formal application process—like Heathrow’s plans for a third runway—are waiting to see the scale and pace of the recovery (no doubt to reassure investors). Many corporations are talking about making permanent cuts to business travel given how easy it’s been to adapt to virtual working practices. So airports are not so bold in calling for growth right now.” This is according to Tim Johnson of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), who added, “Several UK airports have encountered a second obstacle—growing climate awareness amongst the public that has seen active demonstrations against their expansion plans.” 

There’s been little in the way of comparable debate, nor demonstrations, in the US. But the gospel of airports and airline service as local and regional economic essentials and rainmakers remains largely unquestioned by business boosters and political officials.

Who Flies Most, and Why?

The question of whether making air travel more cost-prohibitive could behoove the climate is a tricky one. Members of the “jet set” are often surprised to learn that, even in the US, air travel remains a luxury. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, fewer than half of all Americans over 18 got on an airplane. The most typical American vacation is a road trip—for most Americans, flying is a rare splurge.

That’s not the whole story, though. Different types of trips have been affected differently by the pandemic, are likely to rebound at different rates, and can be long-term addressed from a climate perspective to various degrees. Statistics that lump together all “personal” travel obscure the differences between recreational vacations and travel to visit friends and relatives (“VFR” travel, in industry jargon).

The typical (and mistaken) assumption of industry analysts is that the truly essential and price-insensitive form of travel is business travel, and that VFR travel, like recreational travel, is price-sensitive and discretionary. The pandemic, however, demonstrated that for most people, VFR is highest-priority travel. Whatever means of transportation used, VFR trips, more than business or recreational trips, were the ones people were willing to take despite pandemic risks, costs, and complications. My first trip by air in more than a year, as soon as I was fully vaccinated, was a transcontinental flight to check on an elderly relative.

Most miles in the air are racked up by two quite different groups: business travelers (who are generally wealthier than the average American and for whom the pandemic has revealed most trips to be inessential) and immigrants, for whom maintaining ties with families, friends, and communities overseas is of great priority.

So the reality is that price increases for economy-class long-haul airline tickets would impose their largest (in proportion to income) and most painful effects on immigrants from overseas, who already tend to spend a disproportionate share of their “discretionary” budget on air travel.

“We can’t just say, ‘Don’t fly’,” says environmental attorney Vera Pardee. As an immigrant to the US who retains ties to family and friends overseas, Pardee has “flown across the Atlantic for ever and ever and felt guilty about it.” So, she’s working to reduce the climate impact of whatever air travel continues. However, it’s been a struggle to get emissions from domestic US flights included in Clean Air Act stipulations. 

Can airline emissions be regulated?

Ms. Pardee says the Federal Aviation Administration “has never been interested in controlling aviation emissions,” regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican was in the White House. Even after the US Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that greenhouse gases are pollutants that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and responsibility to regulate under the Clean Air Act, it took two more lawsuits to get a ruling that the EPA must act on greenhouse gases from aviation.

Regulations to fulfill the court’s mandate were proposed during the Obama Administration, but never finalized. “Nobody in the Trump administration had any interest in emissions,” Pardee says, so environmental groups didn’t even press the issue. Environmentalists assumed that any aviation emissions regulations issued by the Trump administration would be crafted to have as little effect as possible. Those fears were borne out when, in the last days of the Trump administration, the EPA finalized rules to (minimally) fulfill its treaty obligations as an ICAO member.

The Sierra Club (represented by lawyers including Pardee as outside counsel) and other environmental organizations immediately challenged these new aviation emissions regulations in federal court for not going far enough to comply with the Clean Air Act. (The Biden administration has asked for that case to be put on hold while it studies whether to withdraw or revise those regulations.)  

“The duopoly of Boeing and Airbus are so strong in Congress and in other countries, and they  argue so well in terms of jobs, jobs, jobs,” Ms. Pardee says. “My fight is to get them to use the technology that exists to cut emissions, building aircraft to new standards that are achievable with current technology—The Clean Air Act requires that, where an existing clean air technology can be feasibly employed, it must be.”

So then, which among existing technologies and tactics to mitigate the climate impact of flying are most promising? 

Dan Rutherford of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) says that both in the US and the international community, little concrete change has come out of discussions about building back better, to date. “There was a spurt of interest in attaching environmental conditions to airline bailouts, but those largely failed,” he explains. “France went the furthest, but the main political imperative has been to try to restart traffic as soon as possible to maintain employment, rather than to keep emissions from returning to the 2019 highs.”

Mr. Rutherford summarizes ICCT’s key recommendations on aviation and climate change as follows: 

  • “Adopt effective efficiency standards for both new and in-service aircraft;
  • “Promote sustainable aviation fuels, particularly through a targeted mandate for waste-based biofuels and synthetic ‘e-kerosene’ like we expect the EU to propose this fall;
  • “Impose a price on aviation emissions, either through emissions trading, fuel taxation, or a frequent flier levy;
  • “Require that airlines start to report per-flight emissions at the point of ticket purchase. (which would allow consumers to reward less polluting airlines with their business).”

“I expect voluntary demand reduction, especially of work travel, sustainable aviation fuels promotion, and emissions disclosure will be the easiest,” Rutherford says. “Efficiency standards for aircraft and carbon pricing will be trickier.”

With all that’s already been done, and the opportunities already missed, what can we do as individuals?

Fly less. Unless there is no alternative, travel by any other means than by air. I was surprised to learn from experts that even solo driving likely contributes less to global warming than flying the same distance—even in coach on a full plane—on present-day planes with present-day fuels. Take vacations or recreational trips closer to home. Take fewer, longer vacations or other trips, so you have time to get to your destination by slower means. (There are many other advantages to slow travel.) Try to bundle business meetings and family visits in the same region, if possible, so you can take one extended trip to a distant place rather than fly back and forth several times. 

Fly coach. Everyone likes to travel first class, but the environmental cost is high—at least double its impact per passenger mile of economy-class travel. On some transcontinental and international routes, the front half of the passenger cabin is devoted to business-class seating for only 20 to 25 percent of passengers—meaning each business-class passenger takes up three to four times as much space and has three to four times the climate impact of each of each coach passenger. 

Doing away with first and business class seating, beds, and “suites” on airliners would be one of the quickest and cheapest ways to reduce air travel’s climate footprint. Corporate, government, and organizational travel policies that incentivize first or business-class airfare (via business expense deductions, or pass-through to clients) haven’t been a target of climate campaigners, but they could be and should be. Changes to travel policies and contracts providing for payment or reimbursement of premium-class airfare—and to tax rules that allow deduction of premium-class airfare as a business expense—could prompt airlines to return to more efficient all-coach configurations, so start petitioning your own organization to course-correct. (Some larger seats for big and tall people, priced in proportion to the space they occupy, could be provided without incurring anything close to the climate cost of today’s business-class beds and “suites.”)

Choose planes with a smaller climate footprint per passenger-mile. All else being equal, the smaller the proportion of the cabin devoted to premium seating, the smaller the climate footprint—a strong reason to choose an all-coach airline. There are also substantial differences in efficiency between airliners—newer planes and newer engines are generally more efficient and likely, in the future, to use fuels with less climate impact, especially for short flights. “Travelers should be looking at greenhouse gas metrics by airline when choosing flights,” Pardee says. That’s easier said than done at the moment, which is why several climate activists I consulted hope to one day require airlines to make such information public, so as to facilitate easier climate comparison shopping.  

What can we do as investors?

Shareholder activism for climate change in the US has focused first on fossil-fuel companies, but hasn’t yet reached airlines, Boeing, or other aircraft manufacturers, much less corporate travel policies. Should you or your retirement plan be investing in fossil-fueled air travel (or in mutual funds that make such investments)? Environmental risks aside, the COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest reminder that air travel is (a) subject to severe reductions in demand due to unpredictable external events (war, pandemic, recession, etc.) and (b) highly dependent on government subsidies that could be ended or changed at any time on the basis of unpredictable political developments. Does such a high-risk investment make sense for your retirement nest egg?

How about as employers and employees?

Large corporations are airlines’ largest and most profitable customers, and their travel policies have huge potential to influence airlines’ practices. Shareholders could, and should, question the value of corporate travel policies and air travel expenditure. Is this much travel really necessary, especially now that the pandemic has revealed how much can be accomplished sans in-person meetings? Is business-class air travel really worth the dollar and environmental cost? As one staffer at the World Bank—one of the few organizations to have tried to measure these costs—has written, “The Bankers have a good response: I’m only there for a week, and I’m much more productive if I can sleep on the plane. To which I reply: your productivity for 0.5 percent of your time is worth 4 percent of your annual salary?”

What can we do as voters and political activists?

Replace government subsidies for airlines with taxes on air travel. There should be no more pandemic bailouts or tax relief for airlines—the tens of billions of dollars that federal, state, and local governments already give owners of US-based airlines in pandemic relief is only the tip of the ongoing-structural-subsidies-to-air-travel iceberg. Most are unmatched by subsidies to other modes of travel. By distorting prices, these subsidies encourage us to fly more, and to choose flying over other modes of travel. Instead of subsidizing air travel, how about building up other modes of transportation so Americans have less environmentally burdensome choices, and taxing airlines according to “polluter pays” principles? 

Longstanding and hard-to-change international aviation treaties prohibit the US government from taxing fuel used for international flights. But the majority of US air travel is domestic and could be subjected to a US climate tax. State and local governments can’t impose taxes on flights—that power is reserved to the federal government—but they can increase rates for leasing gates and terminal space at publicly owned and operated airports.

If you want a future that includes any possibility of flying at all, flying will have to get more expensive, so as to reflect its environmental costs. “Vote for those politicians who will enable you to have a sustainable possibility to travel,” Jo Dardenne advises.

Don’t expand or build new airports.

Airport construction and expansion has been a major focus of climate campaigners in several countries, but not so much in the US. Almost all airports in the US with scheduled passenger service are publicly owned, typically by components or special-purpose agencies of state and/or local governments. This means their policies can be changed by local political forces, regardless of the federal government’s actions. That’s particularly significant since most aspects of aviation policy other than airport construction and operations have been “preempted” by the federal government, leaving little say to local authorities.  

Many airports are operated by low-profile appointed bodies. But these boards and commissions are subject to open meeting laws, and to public pressure on the officials (governors, mayors, etc.) who appoint them. Airports controlled by directly-elected public bodies, such as the Port of Seattle Commission that runs both the Seattle Seaport and Sea-Tac International Airport, are thus easier targets for climate activism.     

As with the risks of investing in aircraft manufacturers or airlines, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the risk to taxpayers of airport expansion financed by revenue bonds that are issued and guaranteed by state and local governments—and which will have to be paid off by taxpayers if air traffic and associated airport revenues don’t meet projections. Do you want your state or local government to mortgage itself to a future of ever-expanding fossil-fueled air travel? As voters, taxpayers can and should ask hard questions of public authorities about the financial and climate costs and risks of airport expenditures and expansion, especially when they involve bond issuance.  

Support the development of sustainable aviation fuels and alternative modes of transportation. 

If you’d like to reduce your climate footprint but see no present alternative to flying, support policies to encourage the development of alternatives, whether trains, buses, boats or future liquid aviation fuel produced from sustainably-generated electric power. (This may sound like a pipe dream but the experts I talked with assured me it is a promising possibility, at least for short-haul flights for which the fuel doesn’t need to have as high energy density). Give alternatives your business whenever you can—bust don’t let that be an excuse for taking action now. The world can’t wait.





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