France Moves to Ban Short-Haul Flights, Paving Way Toward Cleaner Aviation

A French initiative to ban commercial air travel on some domestic routes could prove to be an example for other countries seeking to make flying cleaner.

The bill making its way through parliament would forbid conventional air travel when there’s an alternative by train that takes under 2.5 hours. The legislation advanced in the National Assembly over the weekend as part of a broader debate on climate legislation and still needs to go through the Senate.

“This policy really has the potential to accelerate all sustainable aviation options,” said Venkat Viswanathan, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “Among them it could really push electric aviation forward.”

Aviation was one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions before the coronavirus pandemic brought global travel to a halt. In 2019, the sector produced about 2% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, according to industry group ATAG.

Shorter flights are among the most-polluting. While France made domestic route cutbacks a condition of aid to the French arm of Air France-KLM last year, no country has extended the measures to its broader domestic aviation market.

Cost Difference

Fossil fuels remain the least expensive option to power planes, even as cleaner alternatives are being developed. Sustainable aviation fuels are available in small volumes, battery-powered flights for fewer than 400 miles are almost ready and aviation giant Airbus SE is designing hydrogen planes that won’t be ready for more than a decade.

The law states that exemptions for “decarbonized” flights will be provided in the future. That could open up a market for lower-carbon short-haul flights, creating a space for sustainable alternatives that could help bring costs down further, Viswanathan said.

As it stands, the French regulation would also ban construction of new airports or extensions of existing hubs if the works would lead to an increase in emissions, although exceptions will be made in some cases for health or national security reasons, according to a statement from the environment ministry on Sunday.

Airlines would be required to phase in carbon offset programs for domestic flights between 2022 and 2024. These could include reforestation or other nature protection plans. The package could still be modified as it goes through the Senate and final approval could take weeks.

The U.K., which like France has passed a law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, is pushing ahead with airport expansions. The local government recently approved the extension of a runway at Southampton Airport, despite opposition from environmental groups.

Not Enough?

Environmental groups have asked France to go further.

“The proposed French travel time limit of 2.5 hours leaves a huge number of short flights still in operation,” said John Hyland, a spokesman for Greenpeace EU. “The EU and European governments, France included, should ban all domestic and cross-border short flights when passengers can use less polluting transport like rail or bus.”

France Moves to Ban Short-Haul Flights, Paving Way Toward Cleaner Aviation

Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at climate group Transport & Environment, said the French government should also target long-haul flights by “mandating the use of greener jet fuel and charging an effective carbon price that forces airlines to fly cleaner.”

The rules were put together after Air France was forced to abandon some short-haul routes in France as part of the 7 billion-euro ($8.3 billion) government bailout. The package requested the company to curb domestic flights by 40%. Sister carrier KLM was told by the Dutch government to halve CO2 emissions per passenger by 2030.

The bill currently under discussion was designed to prevent Air France-KLM’s rivals, including low-cost competitors, from taking up those routes abandoned by the carrier’s French arm.

Prior to the latest Air France-KLM bailout, European Union states had channeled at least 23 billion euros into airlines through loans, guarantees, capital injections and grants.

Austria was the only other European country to put in constraints on short-haul air travel as part of its funding plan for the local unit of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, according to a bailout tracker compiled by Transport & Environment.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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