Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high school student from Stockholm has become the activist voice for millions of young people and launched a climate change revolution with her school strike for climate campaign over the past year. In recent weeks she traveled around Europe by train to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican and British Parliament in London to lobby for meaningful climate change legislation.
A new word has taken hold in Swedish lexicon, “flygskam” or flight-shame.
Flight shame is an adversarial concept in the travel miles and points community, where many flyers manage their frequent flyer accounts specifically for premium cabin travel with amenities like private airplane compartments, lie-flat beds and showers in the sky.
To each his own.
We can argue over how polluting air travel is and whether it makes a difference if someone sleeps in a lie-flat bed or sits upright in economy for 10 hours on a long-haul international flight. Climate impact studies generally attribute at least 2% of global climate changing impact to airline travel and many studies indicate the impact is actually in the range of 4% to 6% due to other factors of airline travel affecting climate in addition to the exhaust.
My epiphany came in June 2007 when I was flying Air France in a Business Class seat over the Andes on a flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile. The only reason I was on the aircraft was a $450 mistake fare I picked up to fly Buenos Aires to New York JFK round trip. An article in the inflight magazine showed charts comparing the impact of airline business class travel to economy class travel, train, bus and auto travel.
I had flown hundreds of thousands of miles in Business Class and First Class over the preceding eight years with trips to Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and all around the USA.
Since that South America trip in 2007, I have flown Business Class only one time one way from San Francisco to London.
That is the least I can do since I have still managed to fly 75,000 to 100,000 miles in economy class each year over the past several years. I have not managed to flight shame a cease to my love for European culture. Since moving to Europe is not an option before retirement, the past several years have been exploratory adventures around the continent to determine where in Europe is suitable for the lifestyle we want when the time comes for retirement. At that point, our air travel will likely drop off significantly when we can live in Europe for extended periods with time available for traveling primarily by ground transportation.
Flygskamming/flight-shaming my trip to Europe Summer 2019
In the spirit of trying to minimize my flights around Europe this summer, I scoped out travel itineraries using trains, buses and ferries. The initial problem is our flight arrival in Oslo means 24 hours of travel to reach Prague, where we are meeting friends. Our flight home to California departs from Stockholm.
Oslo to Copenhagen to Hamburg to Berlin to Dresden to Prague is a feasible itinerary, however, we were looking at six days of travel to make that trip with only an overnight in each city. That is not our style of travel.
Kelley has never been to Berlin or Dresden. I have spent a week walking miles and miles across each of these cities exploring many of the major tourist attractions as well as many neighborhoods. My style of travel is walk around for 10 to 12 hours a day and take hundreds of photographs until I am ready to drop. I eat when hunger tells me to refuel.
Kelley’s style is to turn on to the local vibe and live in relaxation mode. Chances are she’ll never step into a museum or old church. She lives in the moment and maintains her normal routine of sleeping in, dining regularly for meals and spending time in stores shopping.
I use travel to learn about the history, geography and demographics of a place and reinforce that knowledge through sharing lots of facts and figures with Kelley as we walk around and through my writing.
Suffice to say that spending six days of travel by bus and train with only overnight stays in five different cities is not Kelley’s idea of enjoyable travel.
I shamefully purchased two $30 tickets to fly Ryanair to Prague in less than 2 hours.
Then, we start our 1,000 miles of ground travel by bus and train through Czech Republic and Poland never spending more than 3 hours at a time traveling between cities.
In the end we fly to Stockholm on Wizz Air on $59 tickets for our flight connection back to California.
Resources on impact of air travel
The Guardian – Greta Thunberg’s train journey through Europe highlights no-fly movement (April 26, 2019)
The Guardian – A weekend in Mexico? Why the rise of long-haul short trips is so disastrous (April 29, 2019).
transportenvironment.org – Airline emissions growth out of control (April 19, 2019) focus on EU airline travel.
International Council on Clean Transportation – Transatlantic airline fuel efficiency ranking, 2017 (Sep 11, 2018). Primary findings are newer fuel efficient aircraft with nonstop long-haul flights and economy class travel are best ways to improve fuel efficiency.
There is a wide gap of 63% between the fuel intensity of industry leader Norwegian
Air Shuttle and bottom-ranked British Airways on transatlantic operations. This gap is
wider than was observed on transatlantic routes in 2014. The two main drivers of this
were aircraft fuel burn and seating density, which combined explain nearly 75% of the
variation in transatlantic fuel efficiency. Two low-cost carriers—Norwegian, with its very
efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet, and WOW air, with its densely-packed Airbus
A321-200 aircraft—topped this fuel efficiency ranking.
Deutsche Welle dw.com – To fly or not to fly? The environmental cost of air travel (Oct 1, 2018).