Plane Tickets Are Too Cheap for Airlines to do Much About Pollution

Making flying more expensive is one way to save the friendly skies. 

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alexstr/Shutterstock

Flying is expensive—and with all the accompanying, ever-increasing fees, it's getting more so than ever. Two years ago, an international flight departing from the U.S. averaged a whopping $1,235. Ticket prices for flights within the U.S. also are skyrocketing: According to an analysis by the Associated Press, the cost of domestic airline tickets has increased by more than 10 percent over the past five years.

But there’s worse news for frequent flyers, especially those with an eco-friendly conscience: Presently, the price of airline tickets is too low. In fact, tickets are so cheap—making air traffic so dense in the skies—that the situation is rapidly contributing to pollution and climate change.

According to a recent study by U.K.-based Southampton University, global demand in air travel is expected to significantly outpace the aviation industry’s efforts to reduce air pollution. In 2013, U.N. member states drafted an agreement to reduce the volume of airline carbon emissions by 2 percent annually through 2050. And given that fuel equates to one-fifth of operation costs, airlines would benefit greatly from a more fuel-efficient industry.

Meanwhile, according to conservative estimates, the total distance of global air travel is expected to grow by 4 to 5 percent each year in the coming decades. This means the anticipated influx of air passengers will negate any carbon-reduction efforts agreed upon by the international community. Dissuading new travelers from the air or encouraging shorter flights is a simple way these carbon-cutting efforts can be achieved. And what's the most effective way to do that? To increase global prices for flights.

“The gap between traffic-growth rates and emissions-reduction rates will remain, unless it can be closed through behavior change to reduce demand for air travel,” the three-man research team writes. Just how drastic of a price hike would it take to shed enough air travelers to ensure greener skies? A 1.4 percent annual price increase would get the job done, the researchers say. (That means 20 years from now, the average ticket for an international flight originating in the U.S. would be $500 more expensive.) Such an increase would stymie annual growth in air travel from roughly 5 percent to 2.4 percent. Only then, when the rate of air travel has been halved, will the aviation industry begin to make gains in combating air pollution.  

Realistically speaking, a global price hike isn't a sustainable approach to reducing airline carbon emissions. “The likelihood that a national government would implement measures explicitly targeted at reducing demand for air-travel doesn't appear high,” the report concludes. People need to get places, and cheap and robust airline services like Europe’s Easy Jet and Ryanair provide a wide range of economic benefits.

Nonetheless, the environmental threat at hand remains serious. According to Boeing, the absolute number of aircrafts in service will jump from roughly 20,000 to more than 40,000 by 2033. So during your next flight, turn off the movie, close your book, and start brainstorming your own solution to reduce the pollution flooding from your plane. It seems the industry could use the help.  

(Top image: Alexstr/Shutterstock.com)

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