Flight shaming: You’ll know it when you feel it

This is what flight shaming looks like. It's the act of calling someone out for flying because of its negative environmental impacts.

This is what flight shaming looks like. It's the act of calling someone out for flying because of its negative environmental impacts. Photo: Getty/TND

Kylie Jenner and her boyfriend weren’t expecting a selfie during their getaway to blow up for all the wrong reasons.

The photo showed the pair kissing between two jets with the caption, “you wanna take mine or yours?”

Their flight, between two Los Angeles towns, lasted just 17 minutes.

Condemnation came hard and fast – Twitter users branded her a “climate criminal” with “disregard for the planet”.

This is one of the most famous recent cases of flight shaming – the act of calling someone out for flying because of its negative environmental impacts.

It’s not just celebrities who are worried about whether to book their next flight (not just because of the price tag).

Airlines are worried.

“The idea behind flight shaming is to sway public perception on the morality of flying,” said Professor Rico Merkert, chair in transport and supply chain management at the University of Sydney.

“So people start to question whether doing something so carbon-intensive as flying is good for the planet.”

How it started; how it’s going

The anti-flying movement began in 2018 in Sweden and quickly gained traction, spreading across northern Europe with the help of famous climate activist Greta Thunberg.

Ms Thunberg led the charge by travelling around Europe on trains and sailing from the US to Portugal to attend a UN climate meeting.

European airports reported a decline in travellers, attributing it to the “Greta effect”.

Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg sailed from the US to Portugal, and avoided airports. Photo: Getty

Flight shaming isn’t just about social media pile-ons. Activists also pressure airlines and sway public opinion using mainstream media and protests.

Billboards hit

In September, activists pasted or spray-painted over airlines’ advertisements all over Europe.

They accused airlines of trashing the environment and not doing enough to fight climate change.

One billboard in Germany read: “At Lufthansa, we distract you with pictures of trees while we fry the planet.”

Australia’s aviation industry has largely dodged public shaming because travellers have little option but to board a plane to travel between our far-flung cities.

This doesn’t mean airlines aren’t spooked by what’s happening overseas; a crisis might be on the horizon.

Millennials and Gen-Zers increasingly see air travel as bad for the environment and might punish airlines that don’t lift their climate credentials, according to experts.

Zoomers have a different mindset from their parents regarding air travel, said Professor Merkert.

Airlines need to limit their carbon footprints and get to grips with flight shaming to stay onside with the younger generation, he said.

Dan Heathwood, from Enperso Business Travel doesn’t think flight shaming is the right way to tackle climate change, but acknowledges that it is having some effect.

Mr Heathwood said that more businesses and corporate travellers want to travel “responsibly”.

“Flight shaming is not how we would go about tackling action on climate change,” he said.

“I think it’s more about education and looking at how we can take positive actions to offset carbon emissions to have a positive impact.”

Airlines fight back

To counter flight shaming, the aviation industry invests in new “greener” aircraft and engines, carbon offsetting, sourcing and developing sustainable aviation fuel, and electrification.

They’ve also upped their marketing campaigns.

In a slick video, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines positions itself as a leader in “creating a more sustainable future for aviation”.

“In terms of marketing, all the airlines understand that there’s a problem, and they’re all trying to reduce their carbon footprints,” said Professor Merkert.

Local players such as Virgin recognised the risk and started getting into the sustainability game as early as 2018, he said.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told the Sydney Morning Herald that Qantas needed to ensure people did not feel like “they need to stop flying”.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce says airlines need to “do the right thing”. Photo: Getty

“Do we really want to … say that for the next generation: Sorry guys, you really shouldn’t travel to Europe and see these amazing sights; you shouldn’t really go and see Uluru’,” said Mr Joyce.

“You don’t have to make that tough decision if the airlines – and Qantas will – do the right thing.”

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