“The U.K. is considering imposing a tax on its most frequent fliers to help curb aviation-related carbon emissions. Nikada/Getty Images
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, airline travel was growing globally. As countries bring infections rates down over the next few years, restrictions are expected to lift and air travel is expected to rise again. The very idea of jetting off to somewhere — anywhere — new sounds good to a lot of people.
But maybe not as many people as you think, and it has nothing to do with COVID. Before the pandemic, 70 percent of flights originating in the U.K. were made by only 15 percent of the country’s population. More than half of the country — 57 percent of the population — didn’t fly abroad at all, according to the BBC.
And in the United States, only 12 percent of the population is responsible for two-thirds of the flights originating there. If we look at the entire globe, only 3 percent of the world’s population flew in 2017.
So why does that matter? Well it’s that small amount of frequent fliers who are generating so much of the aviation-related carbon emissions. The Committee on Climate Change found that "aviation is set to be the biggest source of U.K. emissions by 2050." To curb this trend, the committee recommended a frequent flyer levy. It’s a progressive tax on airline tickets, with the fee going up with every flight you take.
The proposed levy aims to limit frequent flying by making the wealthiest fliers — those who are also the most frequent fliers — pay more.
According to the proposal published in April 2019, "The tax increases with each additional flight the individual takes (e.g., the tax on the third flight is double that on the second) thereby aiming to actively restrain the number of flights. The key goal of the policy is to deliver social justice, given that a relatively small number of people benefit from frequent flying, whilst the environmental damage it causes is spread across the global population."
The trick would be in implementing the levy, which most people admit would be complex. There are data and privacy concerns to consider, as always, and it could impose a burden on those who must fly frequently for work. But it would be easy enough to claim any trip was for work, and it would be difficult to impose the levy on passengers who hold multiple passports.
But the frequent flyer levy would potentially limit the number of flights, which also impacts noise levels for those living near airports. A survey in the U.K. found that most people felt this levy would be more fair than other, less progressive taxes on air travel, such as fuel taxes that are spread across all travelers equally.
Now That’s Eye-opening
If you’re curious about your own carbon footprint when you fly, The Guardian has a handy and kind of horrifying calculator for that. Enter your starting and ending airports to learn how much CO2 your flight will generate and some context for those emissions. For instance, a long flight from Seattle-Tacoma International to Heathrow in London produces 3,225 pounds (1,463 kilograms) of CO2. The calculator notes that there are 67 countries where the average person produces less carbon dioxide in an entire year than this one nine-hour flight.