Frequent flyer reward programs encourage flyers to emit up to 34x their lifetime carbon budget; while flying private can pollute up to 30x more than a standard flight.
A recent report from UK-based nonprofit Possible has found that achieving lifetime membership status in an airline’s frequent flyer program (FFP) could require emitting more than 1,800 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person — which is 34 times our lifetime carbon budget.
Pointless: The climate impact of frequent flyer status included research conducted on FFPs offered by airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic showed that flying enough to qualify for different levels of membership requires carbon emissions at least seven times higher and as much as 112 times higher than the average UK air travel footprint of 0.83 tonnes of CO2e each year.
The highest level of annual membership required flights emitting 92.8 tonnes of CO2e each year. That’s the equivalent of putting more than 40 cars on the road. Possible’s analysis also found that frequent flyer programs are a key part of airlines’ business model — as they drive ticket sales and incentivize customers to pay for the most carbon-intensive seating options in business or first class, and to fly more than they otherwise would.
While the aviation industry did a nosedive during the pandemic, which spiraled into a flight-shaming movement and a rise in flight-free travel options, air travel still plays a vital role in connecting people and driving the global economy; and the industry contributes roughly 2 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). A growing number of industry initiatives and collaborations are emerging to minimize the carbon footprint of every aspect of air travel — from alternative fuels and propulsion technologies to airports themselves — but it will be years before sustainable, new solutions are ready to fly at scale.
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In the meantime, Possible is calling for an immediate end to the offering of frequent flyer programs by airlines operating in the UK, along with the introduction of the antithesis of a FFP — a frequent flyer levy, with which each additional flight over a determined period of time (e.g. a year) would incur a higher levy — with the aim that air travel would becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive even for the wealthiest frequent flyers, while flying infrequently remains affordable
The nonprofit proposes taxes on kerosene and jet fuel should also be introduced to help reflect the climate damage caused by aviation emissions. Measures such as these would help to reduce excessive, wasteful consumption of high-carbon travel by a small group of people and more accurately reflect the real cost of flying for our climate.
“Frequent flyer reward programs are sending emissions soaring in the wrong direction,” said Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at Possible. “Airlines are incentivizing a small group of incredibly frequent flyers to take flights they don’t even want, just to get points — while people around the world pay the real price, as they face dangerous heatwaves and out-of-control wildfires. Airlines need to end this irresponsible behavior and stop awarding points for pollution.”
As the report asserts, schemes that encourage people to fly further, more often and in the most carbon-inefficient seats are antithetical to the culture and policies that we need to limit aviation emissions.
Pointless was a quick follow-up to Possible’s Jetting Away with It report, released in July, which highlighted private jets’ outsized role in exacerbating the climate crisis: It found that flying private can be up to 30 times more polluting than a standard flight.
Adding insult to injury is the fact that passengers on standard airlines tend to pay much more tax than someone on a private jet: On commercial flights, passengers pay an air passenger duty — Possible found that one in five private jet flights don’t need to pay this at all, and most of the rest only pay the standard rate (rather than the highest rate, which is used for business class seats). The report also looked at tax as a proportion of ticket costs and found that this is also much lower for private jets flights than for ordinary passengers.
So, not only are private jets much more polluting than standard air travel, they pay much less in the way of tax. Possible is on a mission to ban fossil-fuel-powered private jets by 2030 and introduce proper taxes that more accurately reflect the harm they inflict on the climate.