The business of flying less

Twittering away this afternoon I stumbled upon a fun little nugget of an article from the New York Times Magazine: apparently, Abercrombie & Fitch is ditching the company’s private jet. While the slow decline of the once ubiquitous brand isn’t of much concern, what stood out about this snippet of news was the role flying plays in American business culture and vice versa. The amount it’s utilized in the US for business travel raises some quandaries like acknowledging how much of a contribution business air travel is contributing to American carbon emissions while figuring out a way to expanding and financially invest in alternatives. Considering business needs for comprehensive infrastructure and the benefits produced private business arguably needs to play a bigger role in new investments and financing. Flying remains one of the heaviest carbon producing forms of passenger transportation, and if business is a major player in maintaining the status quo of unsustainable transportation options the burden should be put equally on them as other parties to bring about the needed cultures and resources for change.

A huge player behind the number of flights made in the United States is business travel. The amount of business travel I observe in my day-to-day life is impressive. Even as a recent college graduate I have already had instances where I’ve needed to travel for work. But the sheer amount of it I see in the US astounds.he frequency and the degree to which it happens is actually shocking. Consultants are making flights multiple times a week, people commute by plane to other cities, people who make three or four trips a year for work, and even at my job I’ve had managers fly from New York to Chicago for one afternoon. Epic, the healthcare technologies firm based in Madison, WI, seemed to function on a cycle of flying employees all across the country Mondays only to have them return Thursdays. And each flight is contributing to the country’s collectively huge carbon footprint.

This speaks volumes about energy, environmentalism, and transportation priorities in the US compared to the rest of the world. While the EU is trying to enact laws that counter the negative impact of flying on the environment and its role in climate change, the US resists along with the likes of China and India. While part of this is certainly a culture of flying in the US that is practically the long-distance equivalent to driving, another part of the problem lies in the lack of alternatives and the poor intermodal connections available at American transportation hubs. While the former is a cultural change that will require a lot more than infrastructure, the latter issue is a problem of poor investment programs, public and private. If money (and so much political resistance to ‘big government’) were no object, American transportation infrastructure might resemble that in Europe or Japan (and increasingly China). But money is an object to investing in better and cleaner alternatives, and raising money for investments in infrastructure is proving to be slightly more than difficult these days.

Carbon Emissions in US by Travel Mode

Source: Sightline Institute

As more businesses and companies seek to build a “green” profile, part of the equation should be an examination of how business travel plays into this and ways to counter unsustainable practices.  While solutions like telecommuting and working remotely may have lowered the number of business trips people need to take to some degree, the importance of face-to-face contact, and thus the need for travel, remains important. Getting business travelers out of plans and onto trains as the best alternative is one of many massive moves needed to reign in American greenhouse emissions.

 


 

Aviation in the US is massive. According to the US Department of Transportation’s 2001 National Household Survey, approximately 45-50% of all trips by air were for some type of business travel. Assuming these percentages have stayed relatively constant in 2012 there were 276 million business related passenger trips of 736.7 million total (not including foreign travelers). Just the number of potential business travelers in the US in 2012 alone dwarfs the total number of passenger air trips made in Germany, Russia, the UK, France, and Brazil each that year. The price for investing in these intermodal connections and alternatives has to fall somewhere. Placing a greater burden on the worst offenders to fund better investment (and in the case of aviation that’s business travel) might just be the boost needed to actually increase investment.

Even though aviation accounts for only about 5% of greenhouse gas emissions globally it’s not unreasonable for a half to three-quarters of the average American’s emissions to result from flying (and aviation contributions to American emissions could potentially amount to half US emissions by 2050); that translates to three or five long flights a year (something some business people do on a monthly basis if not more). The more developed a country is the higher contributions from aviation become. This alone is evidence enough that demand for air travel is a major player large carbon footprint of the average American with business travel playing a big role in spurring that demand. And with an increase of 71.4 million trips between 2000 and 2012 demand remains high.

While leisure trips still account for almost half of total air trips in the US it only accounts for about a quarter of leisure trips; aviation accounts for almost two-thirds of all business trips (numbers sourced from US Travel Answer Sheet). The numbers reflect the obvious: leisure travel differs from business travel. It can be done at a more placated pace, while business travel usually needs to be quick and efficient. But that also reveals another truth! Other than planes, there is no other quick and efficient travel option available to the many Americans, even when such options would be competitive and more sustainable than flying is available (even in the most modest ways possible).

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This graph shows passenger airline trips made on a national basis.

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This graph compares global flights made and passenger flights made by region.

With the exception of the Northeast Corridor and a few routes in the Midwest and California, trains can basically be ruled out as business travel options, which is probably the reason behind the mind-boggling number of airline trips being made. But they offer the best alternative, especially for the many connecting flights and short-haul flights made each day. The opposite relationship exists in Europe: at Schipol, Frankfurt/Main, or Charles de Gaulle travelers have the option to transfer to either another flight or local and high-speed trains to complete their journey. Indeed, a number of European rail companies and airlines code share to encourage such transfers. German Wings, a lower-cost carrier, offers an option to buy unlimited 24-hour passes for local transit in the destination city to facilitate access to main stations or complete the final leg of a trip. Even intercity-bus connections are well thought out at airports there.

Granted, the costs of flying are already raised by taxes and fees, but a total review of transportation funding across the country has to happen to redistribute the costs onto the worst offenders, ease the burden on responsible travel, and invest in options that have the widest benefits–economic, social, and environmental. This could include putting more of the costs onto business travelers and businesses that require large numbers of employees to travel. Yearend fees could be imposed on businesses bases on the number of employees traveling and the mode of transportation (with high fees for air miles and the associated environmental costs, moderate fees for rail and bus transit to help pay for basic maintenance and new investments, and very low fees for private automobile use assuming charges for infrastructure use would be levied through gas taxes and tolls).

The reason for doing this is to ensure business travel is being appropriately taxed. Just applying fees to passengers based on reason for travel would be impossible, there would be no way to track it. Of course business class tickets would be easy to tax extra, many business travelers still fly coach. Other methods would be to remove things like “segment fees” and turn them into emissions fees (potentially levied on flights to pay for alternative energy and transportation options as a means to off-set the environmental costs of air travel) and “alternatives” fees–extra fees levied on flights made where reasonable alternatives exists (such as the Northeast Corridor). Maybe, just maybe, businesses would even put a greater push behind getting government to invest in alternatives already if their profit margins and costs were challenged by the potential of higher travel fees.

This isn’t to say the costs of flying should be mitigated all together for non-business travelers. As Barbara Peterson points out in the Condé Nast article linked above points out, part of the purpose behind the sticker shock caused by taxes on air travel to discourage consumption of this resource, and in a more infrastructure rich future, hopefully utilize alternatives. It shouldn’t also be misconstrued as an attempt to disregard the issues of government divestment, which if reversed could usher investments mitigating the need to charge more for costly travel practices. Reviews of tax codes, releasing much need infrastructure funds, continuing equitable investment in all modes of travel, and encouraging sustainable living habits (through taxation and practice) is as much the realm of government as it is business. But considering we seem to be in an area of government fiscal constraint and poor foresight to the needs of infrastructure investments it appears the user fees shall reign and should as a means to fairly distribute the real and external costs of high-frequency flying.

 


 

Getting people out of planes and onto trains, much like getting people out of cars and onto bikes and transit, is going to require a sea change in terms of infrastructure and culture. Culturally speaking, the significant gains in the power of communications technologies is going to be a huge boon for how business is done, but also keeping people on the ground when it’s not absolutely necessary. Even when it’s time to travel though, a culture of practicality needs to be developed when planning business trips. Asking whether it’s absolutely necessary to go is one question, deciding where to locate a meeting is another. Practicality of location is important to consider. Generally though, accepting other forms of transportation as reasonable options for business travel might also have a positive impact on how we value time and work–a more comprehensive cultural shift.

Changing travel habits is not just something that should be a concern for environmental reasons, but our own psychological health as well. In a piece he wrote for Slate, Eric Holthaus succinctly explains the needs and benefits of slowing our speed of travel and disconnecting our travel habits from aviation a little bit. For him, it not only re-prioritized what was important to him–sustainable living–but it helped him to re-engage with the world around him better, something a lot of us probably need. Americans are notorious for our obsessions with work and our seeming inability to stop for even a moment. The need to fly for all work travel, beyond being a symptom of limited infrastructure, apparently is also a product of the ‘go go’ attitude in American work culture.

Kevin Anderson, another infrequent flier based in England, recounts his rail based trip from Manchester to Shanghai for an environmental conference. He was spurred by the need to remind the environmentalist community to actually live what they preached. A great irony of many sustainability activists lifestyles is rate at which they fly, indeed jet set, dramatically increasing their individual carbon footprints. From his perspective it was an engaging experience on multiple levels and the days long return trip proved rather productive.

There are benefits to both slowing down our travel habits and rethinking priorities that are as applicable to private travel as they are to business travel. Not only does it become more sustainable, it forces us to re-evaluate what is important to us and worth prioritizing, because slowed down travel means potentially less travel. Finally though, it has the benefit of giving us time to be disconnected for a little bit from work, and when we do work, the large bulks of uninterrupted time can be dedicated to productive work, away from many of life’s distractions. Slowing down is not a bad thing and should really be embraced a little bit more.

 


 

The whole idea of flying less is a complicated and frustrating thought. The great issue with flying is the huge costs it entails, but financially on individuals and operating agencies, but also on the environment. Countering the greenhouse emissions of a few domestic flights a year in the US would require most Americans to begin living exactly like Manhattanites, which isn’t happening any time soon. At this rate, it will be hard to get a lot of Americans to live even partially like that. The great joy of flying stems from the ability to cover great distances in a relatively short amount of time and thus having the opportunity to experience a greater number of places and see more of the world. Travel provides a huge amount of joy to people, and that shouldn’t stop any time soon. A critique of flying shouldn’t be taken as a critique of travel, because sustainable habits and travel shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

But this point lies behind the particular emphasis on changing travel practices for business and not leisure. It plays a significantly bigger role in generating demand for air travel in the US. Based on 2012 employment statistics, if every employed person in the US traveled for work at some point that year they would be making an average of 1.4 air trips annually versus 1.3 air trips for leisure per capita annually. But since not all employed people travel for work, it’s easy to assume a much smaller number of individuals is responsible the high rates of air travel for business. This is the issue at hand, because it represents a disproportionate responsibility for carbon emissions from aviation (and don’t forget all those private jets used in business, unless you’re Abercrombie). Pressuring businesses to fly less and promote heavier investment in alternatives could make a huge impact in our collective travel related carbon foot print while systematically improving infrastructure in the US (less pressure on airports, more options, improved local economies etc).

This is not a silver bullet solution, nor can aviation be blamed in a simplistic fashion. Like so much in the battle to reign in emissions, aviation is only one piece to the puzzle and one that shouldn’t be attacked so easily as the only culprit. As Justin Francis is quoted in The Guardian “People are after simple answers, simple solutions. But we’ve oversimplified it with flying: if people really want to reduce their carbon, they can make a larger difference by lagging their boiler or taking showers not baths, rather than cutting out a flight…”  Cutting out flights won’t solve anything on its own. We need to be comprehensive in our approach to lowering our carbon footprints all around. Plus, aviation gives tourism a huge boost and is an economic engine to so many places, especially where major hubs are located. And if not for aviation, many of us wouldn’t have the wondrous experiences travel bring to our lives. But it can’t remain the only option, nor the go to option. Something has to give in our over reliance on aviation and much of that will be rooted in a cultural change and improvements to infrastructure.

And that has to come from somewhere.

It just makes sense to put the pressure to change on business. As the a disproportionate contributor to the issue, but also a major beneficiary of strong infrastructure it seems reasonable that it would be business contributing a greater share to solving this issue, getting into the business of flying, and flying less.