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There are many moves underway in the aviation industry to cut emissions and make transportation greener. Aircraft are becoming more efficient, fuel is changing, and paid carbon offsetting is increasing.

Legislation to control flights is another possibility. This is just starting to happen, with the EU approving France’s restriction on short flight routes than can be easily served by train. Other countries may follow, as high-speed rail alternatives continue increasing across Europe.

Banning short flights within France – finally

At the end of 2022, the European Commission approved France’s ban on domestic flights that cover a route regularly served by train in under 2.5 hours. This is something that France introduced in 2021 through the 2021 Climate Law and has been much discussed since then. It is seen by the country as an important part of its overall attempts to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. There have been oppositions, however, mainly from the Union of French Airports (UAF) and the European branch of the Airports Council International (ACI Europe).

As an EU member, approval for this to pass into law was needed from the European Commission, and this was given at the start of December 2022. The ban will last for three years and then be re-assessed.

Limited scope so far

While there is little denying that such a ban will help emissions reductions, it is really just a first step in the right direction. A ban on flights on routes which are reliably served by train services in under 2.5 hours sounds great, but in reality it only applies to three commercial routes. These are Paris to Nantes, Lyon, and Bordeaux. Air France already stopped serving these routes in 2020 as part of the terms of its government pandemic support.

These routes are all served by regular TGV services in under 2.5 hours. This was a definition taken seriously by the European Commission, and likely to be of interest to any other country looking at similar restrictions. There were proposals for restrictions on other routes – specifically Paris to Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes and Rennes, and Lyon to Marseille. These were rejected by the European Commission due to the duration or frequency of the rail service. If rail services improve on these routes, flight restrictions could be introduced later.

Limitations to follow for private flights

While the ban on these domestic flights is a start, there are bigger issues often raised in France regarding private jet use. France has the highest number of private jet flights in Europe (close up with the UK). One tenth of all departures in France in 2019 were by private jet – and half of these flights were under 500 kilometres, according to a 2021 report from the European NGO Transport and Environment.

This specific legislation does not tackle this properly, but more may follow. An outright ban is, of course, unlikely, but the government has suggested increased taxation, operating restrictions, or transparency of usage as possible future changes. There is already a growing trend for public scrutiny of such flights, putting pressure on aircraft users.

Will other countries do the same?

It is not surprising that this has taken place first in France. The country is rightly proud of its high-speed TGV services, and was the first country in Europe to introduce such a network. Other countries have extensive high-speed networks too now, and some are also considering flight restrictions.

Similar action was seen in Austria during the pandemic. The government linked its financial support for Austrian Airlines in 2020 to its climate policies, requiring the airline to move more passengers to rail on short flights from Vienna (as well as requirements to increase fuel efficiency and lower emissions). Germany, Spain, and Scandinavian countries are all considering restrictions on shorter flights, but so far have not taken any action.

There are so far no real proposals outside Europe. An interesting study by the European Investment Bank in 2020 showed that 49% of Americans would support similar short-haul bans in the US (compared to 62% in Europe). With very different public transport options there however, it will likely be some time before we see anything happening.

Taking restrictions even further

Further investment in rail will be a key driver for more air route restrictions. This was very evident from the EC’s partial approvals for France. Major projects are underway in this area already – including expansion of the German rail network, work between the Czech Republic and France to create new lines, and a new high-speed connection from Amsterdam to Brussels. Overall, the EU aims to double high speed rail traffic by 2030.

There is a desire from environmentalists too for things to go further. Greenpeace is pushing for a ban on flights where rail connections of less than six hours exist. The group argues that a third of Europe’s busiest 250 flight routes fall into this category.

Experts however are keen to warn against taking short-haul bans too far, when long-haul is the real emissions culprit. According to data from Eurocontrol for 2020, short flights (under 311 miles) made up 31% of European departures, but accounted for only 4% of emissions. The longest 6% of flights accounted for 52% of emissions.

Final Thoughts

France may be the first country to introduce such short domestic flight restrictions, but it not likely to be alone. This could well be the start of a growing trend we will see apply in more countries and to more routes, as the aviation sector plays its part in national carbon commitments.

Article sources:

Transport and Environment report: https://www.transportenvironment.org/discover/private-jets-can-the-super-rich-supercharge-zero-emission-aviation/

European Investment Bank survey: https://www.eib.org/en/surveys/2nd-climate-survey/climate-action-and-policy-solutions.htm

Greenpeace: https://www.greenpeace.org/eu-unit/issues/climate-energy/45901/research-shows-one-third-of-europes-busiest-flights-have-train-alternatives-under-six-hours/

Eurocontrol data: https://www.cntraveler.com/story/how-short-haul-flight-bans-are-transforming-european-travel

Greenpeace study: https://www.greenpeace.org/static/planet4-eu-unit-stateless/2021/10/135ec803-getontrack-gp-briefing-en-final.pdf

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